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The reinvention of the new nanny state

Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins (1964): “Come on children, do your bit for the NHS.”

It’s been almost 60 years since the phrase “nanny state” entered the vernacular, says Bagehot in The Economist. Its inventor, the former Conservative minister Iain Macleod, was furious about the introduction of 70mph speed limits on England’s motorways. Following that logic, he argued, we might as well “go back to where we started with a 5mph limit and the man with the red flag”. Well, Macleod would not have enjoyed this year’s party conference season. Rishi Sunak wants to make it illegal for anyone born after 2009 to buy tobacco; Labour is hoping to crack down on vaping, outlaw junk-food advertising, and make sure three- to five-year-olds have tooth-brushing lessons. “Nanny has been busy.”

Yet the nature of the nanny state has changed. It used to be “paternalistic”, a means of protecting people from themselves. Today it’s all about “protecting the state from the people”. Sunak argues that smokers “heap pressure on the NHS”; Labour warns that tooth decay lands people in hospital. In fairness, voters expect far more from the state than they used to: free childcare; help with social care costs for the elderly; energy subsidies when gas prices shoot up. And the more public services the state provides, the more the government will intrude into the lives of voters “to keep a lid on the cost”. Ministers know they won’t encounter that much opposition – after Covid lockdowns, “even sweeping measures seem small bore”. In the new nanny state, “everyone is a public servant”.