UK Politics

Power To The People

Jackie Ashley in the Guardian is in favour of the Nanny State.

She considers that such a state has both a

right and duty to involve itself in questions of diet, health, family budgets and good parenting

I can only agree with her argument that the state should involve itself in such matters up to a certain point. To give one example of where I can agree I should point out that before laws and regulations were introduced to prevent it food adulteration was a real problem in this and other industrialised countries. Manufacturers regularly added chalk to bread and more unsavoury unnatural ingredients to other foodstuffs. I wouldn’t fancy swapping my own diet for that endured by a typical Nineteenth Century urban worker and I’m glad of the laws which prevent it. Also the beer I drink now is better than that supped by my ancestors. Increasing consumer choice is certainly a factor in this state of affairs but strict purity and hygeine laws are arguably more important in bringing it about.

Having said that I’m uncomfortable with Ashley’s view of the state’s rights and duties.

Does the state really have the right to tell us what to eat, what to spend our money on and how we should bring up children ? It’s not clear from her article exactly where she would draw the line because she is not explicit about her proposals but she implies that there are obviously good and bad choices to be made in life and that the state is more likely to know what the good choices are than individuals.

I’m not sure either of these assumptions are right. A healthy diet is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a movable feast. What was considered a good diet in the past is not neccessarily what is considered a good diet now. Scientific knowledge changes and the dietary status of bread, potatoes, meat, pasta, or any other type of food doesn’t seem to stay the same for very long. Some people can thrive on a certain type of diet while others aren’t suited to it at all. Why is a government minister to be trusted to know what we should eat in preference to our own or our Doctors observations ?

Ashley seems to have convinced herself that the existence of more obese people in society, widespread advertising by commercial interests and working parents are an argument for the state to enlarge it’s role in society, presumably in order to make us all slim again, curtail the effects of advertising and keep children off the streets. Hmmm. I see the problems but I don’t agree with her solution.

I will argue in this post that people who call themselves progressive should not be arguing for the state to increase it’s role in our lives but that we should be arguing that it should actually be rolled-back as much as possible. That people should reclaim the powers the state has taken from them. I argue this not only from a negative point of view (ie that it would save a lot of money and it would prevent the further development of political and civic helplessness) but also from a positive point of view.

One of the more interesting things I learned from studying the works of the pre-war Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s in my youth was the concept of civil society in political philosophy. civil society was the phrase Gramsci gave to that whole swathe of life that went on above the basic family unit and under the national state. It might include membership of all sorts of voluntary associations, charities, youth clubs etc and include local political activity and membership of trades unions and other similar bodies. Gramsci wrote about civil society at length because he given a great deal of thought to the difference between Russia and Italy (and by implication the rest of Western Europe) including the forms a future society might take in both places. He observed that in pre-revolutionary Russia there had been practically no civil society and as a result the development of the Soviet Union was inevitably going to be along rigid Statist lines with the state admitting no other source of ideas or power. Italy was different, there had always been a large and flourishing civil society there and as a result Gramsci predicted Italian socialism would be very different from the Russian model.

The Italian Communists never formed a national government in Italy until after they had changed their name and politics in the 1990’s but their model of socialism, directly influenced by Gramsci, has been tried out locally in places like the “Red Belt” of Emilia-Romagna.

Some of the towns in the Red Belt have been Communist since the war but the idea that the government should impose eating and parenting advice is paradoxically much less likely in Tuscany than in Teddington. I think this is due to a number of factors. For historical reasons Italians have distrusted the state more than North Europeans. But more importantly whoever it is that is running the Italian state, national or regional, left or right, doesn’t expect to have to tell people how to bring up their children or draw up a household budget. The lack of government advice on such matters doesn’t seem to have led to social diasaster in Italy. On the contrary Italian young people, in my experience at least, are generally well-behaved, not as prone to obesity as British children, and less likely to binge-drink. There are less half-dressed puking girls on a typical Via Gramsci than it’s British equivalent. We’re not talking about comparing apples and oranges either. Italy is an advanced industrial country with a GDP close to ours.

It’s ironic that I have to go to Italy for an example of socialism which trusts people to make their own choices about the most fundamentally important things in their lives. I say that because we used to have a similar thing here. The history of British working-class self-organisation is strangely neglected in this country but the impact on civil society made by groups like the Co-operative pioneers, the Socialist Sunday School movement, the Ramblers, the Temperance Movement and a whole host of less well-known but no less-important local and national organisations which provided poorly-educated but intelligent people with all sorts of skills, opportunities and social experience was enormous.

It is instructive to contrast the dynamic, pro-active, self-improving stance taken by socialists prior to the Second World War with the more inward-looking examples today who argue automatically that everything wrong with society should neccessarily be put right by the state.

Let’s get one thing straight – it’s not that I don’t care about people getting into debt, eating badly, or making a pig’s ear out of raising their children. These things are obviously important to us all and we turn our back on the consequences at our peril. But I have to disagree with those who think the state is the best body to do something about these types of problems.

I think a revitalised civil-society is a much better forum for individuals to learn about and make choices regarding health and nutrition, family budgeting and parenting than a committee room or a ministerial office. Learning from civil-society might take various forms. It can include joining a formal organisation like the Womens Institute. It could be attending night classes in food preparation or it can simply be an informal network of friends who cook or babysit for each other. Whatever it is it will put the individual in control of their life not a government minister. Isn’t that what progressives should be in favour of ?

If Jackie Ashley tried one of these courses of action in preference to leaving the state to solve all the problems of society she might learn that, contrary to her assertions, fruit is not beyond the means of working-class people and that if she learns where to shop she can buy good, fresh ingredients much cheaper than the pre-prepared meals loaded with sugar and salt she complains people are forced to eat because of their economic circumstances. It would also put her in the driving seat as opposed to Ms’s Jowell, Hodge and Harman. If she wants recipes for her ingredients she could do worse than having a look here.