17 May 2021

When will the Government take a stand for personal freedom?

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Last year, I suggested that the Covid-19 pandemic might finally provide the Government with an opportunity to refocus the public health agenda on similar threats, rather than putting an inexorable squeeze on personal freedom.

It was too much to hope. As Christopher Snowdon wrote on these pages last week, the march of the nanny state, both here in the UK and overseas, is relentless. Public Health England may be gone, but we still have ministers trying to work out if a bakery will be allowed an Instagram account when their ban on online advertising for junk food comes into force.

This is the unfortunate context in which we must greet the Government’s announcement that it intends to force restaurant businesses above a certain size to put calorie totals on their menus.

As someone who has tried to calorie-count their diet, I know full well the frustration of carefully logging every last thing at home before being reduced to pure guesswork when dining out. And unlike many more nakedly authoritarian public health interventions, the principle behind this move is not objectionable. There is a perfectly sound liberal case for giving consumers more information so they can make better decisions.

But the way the Government is choosing to go about implementing this measure is not in this spirit. It would be perfectly practical to make sure this information is available without rubbing it in the faces of everyone who wishes to dine out. Mandate large chains to put the data online, and apps such as MyFitnessPal will put it at the fingertips of anyone who wishes to find it.

Meanwhile those who just want to enjoy their meal, let alone people who have struggled with eating disorders and are distressed by the prospect of public calorie counts, can carry on as they do now.

But one suspects that giving people the option of ignoring this information would defeat the object, as far as the public health lobby is concerned. After all, it is vanishingly rare to find an activist who takes a non-paternalistic interest in promoting more information for its own sake.

Recall when Camilla Cavendish, one of David Cameron’s advisers, lamented that people use traffic-light food labelling in supermarkets – another unobjectionable development in itself – to select for taste rather than health. It didn’t matter that they were making better-informed decisions; it mattered that they were making the ‘wrong’ decision. So more policy interventions were obviously needed.

It was ever thus. Remember when anti-smoking campaigns were just about combating the disinformation of the manufacturers and making sure that smokers had the science to hand? And when that line was dropped, the subsequent pretence that tobacco was sui generis, and the same arguments wouldn’t be adduced against other problematic pleasures?

The ‘slippery slope’ may be a rhetorical fallacy. But that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes you are sliding down one.

Imagine a few years from now, when calorie counts on menus are a normal part of life but obesity rates have mysteriously stayed where they are. (That’s assuming that the policy doesn’t lead restaurants to reformulate, the way the Sugar Tax removed almost every full-sugar soft drink from the shelves.)

Is it so hard to imagine activists calling for this data to be used to create new, more prescriptive policies about what restaurants could serve? One has already floated the idea of making public support for restaurants in the pandemic conditional on their “offering more healthy than unhealthy options”, and the out-there fantasies of one generation of would-be nannies have a habit of becoming public policy a decade or two hence.

The problem, as ever, is that whilst many Conservatives like to grumble about the ‘nanny state’, few bother to develop a principled or intellectually coherent objection to it. That might lead to them having to advocate for actually repealing something, a rubicon most of the right is usually very reluctant to cross (although the move to scrap the Fixed-term Parliaments Act perhaps suggests this is changing).

Indeed, so universally entrenched is the puritan instinct amongst our governing classes that a firm stand for personal freedom has no far not made it into the Government’s agenda for the so-called ‘culture war’.

This is a missed opportunity. IEA research has clearly demonstrated that sin taxes are extraordinarily regressive. Revenue-neutral cuts, offset by more progressive alternatives, would put money back in the hands of less well-off families without harming the public finances, and help reforge the alliance in defence of pleasure which helped deliver Tory hegemony at the turn of the last century, when George Dangerfield wrote:

“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.”

Alas, Boris Johnson is probably not the politician from whom to expect a principled and intellectually coherent line on any subject, let alone one that would subject him to quite so much elite obloquy. Liberty-lovers must hope that, on this front at least, the cultural realignment set in motion by the collapse of the Red Wall has some distance yet to run.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.