4 July 2019

Does Boris have the stomach to take on the public health lobby?


There is something at once heartening and bone-achingly wearisome about hearing a Conservative politician talking about how they’re going to take the fight to the nanny state.

If you’re liberally-minded it is of course nice to hear someone, anyone, talking that way. But there’s no escaping the fact that Conservatives have said the same things about a whole raft of measures they have since rolled over and accepted – rendering the intellectual case for continued opposition a nonsense in the process.

Boris Johnson is the most recent Tory to step up to this particular plate, announcing that he will order a review of the sugar tax and veto its extension to dairy products.

This is commendable, as far as it goes. But if Boris is serious about a proper rethink of ‘sin taxes’, he needs to recognise that he may well find himself with a fight on his hands that’s at least as difficult – and as vicious – as delivering Brexit.

It is a fight worth having. Whilst I and many others might object to sin taxes regardless of their effect on behaviour, Boris raises an important point when he promises to put a spotlight on whether or not they actually work. Chris Snowdon at the IEA has made a persuasive case that such levies are very often ineffective at their stated purpose, with paternalistic rhetoric instead providing cover for what are merely aggressive, and extremely regressive, revenue taxes.

A Conservative Party which genuinely valued freedom of choice, let alone one aiming to establish a base of support amongst working-class voters, would not sit easily with a welfare state and tax system aimed at imposing middle-class dietary preferences on the less well-off. It would recognise that there is a vast moral difference between a social safety net, which catches people when they need it but otherwise leaves them be, and a social straitjacket, which actively restricts individual choice in the name of maximising safety at minimal cost.

Yet do we have such a Conservative Party? There is already talk of Boris facing his first Commons rebellion on this issue, and he isn’t even leader yet. The sugar tax, plain packaging, and the bans on menthol and flavoured cigarettes and fast food advertising all have their passionate advocates on the blue benches. As for the smoking ban, it’s almost certainly quicker to count its remaining opponents than its advocates.

The story of Tory resistance to the nanny state is of a predictable pattern of tough posturing against a particular measure, followed by almost immediate acquiescence once it is on the statute book. A few years later and they’re proud of it. Rinse and repeat.

As a result of these concessions, many Conservative politicians are hamstrung when it comes to trying to make a coherent moral or intellectual case against the latest authoritarian innovations. If you’re going to scrap the sugar tax because it squeezes revenue out of the poor without changing consumption patterns, are you going to cut tobacco duty on the same basis? So long as you keep duty at a level which offsets the actual costs of smoking to the NHS, the case is very similar – yet few would dare to make it.

In fact, many self-styled opponents of the nanny state seldom actually want to repeal much, if anything, that has already been introduced. Perhaps they don’t want to take on the powerful public health lobbies, or face the strident criticism of puritan-minded newspapers such as the Times. Perhaps they really do just think we happen to have, at this moment in time and quite by accident, struck precisely the right balance between public health and personal freedom. Either way, it leaves them with a feeble case against further change.

Breaking with this unhappy tradition would split the party just as Brexit has. It would involve some form of realignment away from a portion of the Tories’ traditional, well-heeled base – and the Times’ editorial team – towards working-class voters. But this would, in a sense, simply be a return to a great Tory tradition. As George Dangerfield wrote of the Party as it stood just over a century ago:

“In England, the Conservatives… traditionally believed in a man’s right to drink strong waters. The Liberals… were inclined to protest, and sometimes even to believe, that drink was the Devil. In the public houses, therefore, the Conservatives had a nice little chain of political fortresses, where their cause was loyally upheld by poor men in their cups; and these were not to be surrendered at any cost.”

Much has changed since the Edwardian England he describes. But the idea that there might be an electoral dividend in noticeably cutting the cost of living for millions of less-well-off voters – and doing so in a manner which will outrage some very irritating people in the process – makes as much sense for Boris as it did for Lord Salisbury. Not only might it rebuild that chain of Tory fortresses in the nation’s pubs, it might even help keep more of them open at all.

But if he really wants to do it, a few isolated measures won’t be enough. He’ll have to go to bat for some big, contentious moral arguments: that we don’t owe a duty of health to the state; that a free society will always have ‘preventable deaths’; and that paying for the NHS doesn’t give wealthy voters the right to take control of the lives of the people who use it.

Liz Truss is up for that fight. So too might be Ruth Davidson, if you make clear the imminent danger this agenda poses to a woman’s right to enjoy a Curly Wurly. But Boris? A man with no great reputation for ideological conviction, who famously wants to be liked, and who introduced a sugar tax in City Hall on his own initiative?

It’s far from obvious he has the stomach to withstand what the public health lobby would throw at him – so the rest of our stomachs will likely remain fair game for nanny.

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Henry Hill is assistant editor at ConservativeHome