Never has Britain been a more capable, educated society where people are better able to make their own decisions and control their own lives. We’re becoming more receptive to new ways of doing things, just as new technologies like the internet have put more information than ever at our fingertips. Britain is one of the most open and tolerant societies in the world. I think that’s hugely exciting for the future of our country and something we should all be proud of.
It’s ironic, then, that at this point in our history we’ve seen the growth of the nannying tendency, which wants to tell us ever more about how we should live our lives. There seems to be a huge competition to micromanage our lives — from what we consume in the media, to what we drink, and even what we eat.
Food is a hugely joyful part of life. It’s part of our identity and culture. Some of my first memories are the smell of freshly baked bread or heading to the chip shop for my weekly treat of fritters and chips. And, in fact, we are eating more healthily than we did in the 1970s and 1980s. Just as Britain is developing a new exciting food culture — a golden opportunity for Brand Britain, as we leave the EU — there seems to be an army of nannies and naysayers desperate to tell us we are eating the wrong thing or too much.
‘Junk food’ ads have been banned from the tube — with ‘junk food’ including bacon, butter, and jam. The people of Scotland have been thwacked with a minimum alcohol price. Not a week goes by without a proposal for a meat tax, raising alcohol prices, or making portion sizes so small you’d need a microscope to go with your knife and fork.
Of course, I want to see a healthier society. And children in particular deserve our special protection — they’re not yet adults capable of making their own decisions. It’s absolutely right that we don’t allow underage drinking, and that school meals have nutritional standards.
But, frankly, I don’t believe grown adults want their money spent telling them what to eat. There’s nothing wrong with people deciding to have a glass of wine or slice of pizza in their own home. Or even a sneaky can of mojito in public, provided you’re not causing a disturbance. Public money is finite, and as I’ve gone around the country speaking to people about where they want to see their money spent, I haven’t seen being told how to do the weekly shop at the top of anyone’s priority list.
But, more than that, when we try to micromanage people’s lives, we take away the freedoms that are crucial for them to feel in control. I’m neither a vegan nor a vaper, but I respect that people want to make that choice about how to live their lives. Freedom is the ability to make choices that others disapprove of.
There’s a lot of hypocrisy in this debate. Many on the left say they’re all about social freedoms, but in the same breath try to de-platform right-wing speakers in universities and ban food or lifestyle choices they don’t like. Freedom works both ways, and we can defend the principle without endorsing every choice people make.
Much as food has become a big target, this goes well beyond what we eat or say. Freedom is one of the foundations of our success as a country. Successful economies are built on disruption — often the best business ideas are first met with social ridicule. If we want to remain a nation of inventors, we must be willing to step back, let people experiment, and live their lives how they see fit.
For public officials judged by the outcomes in society, the urge can be strong to command and control. The assumption is that society is a machine where levers can be pulled, the handle can be cranked, and better results will ensue. So, there are calls to regulate or ban foods too high in sugar or fat, to reduce obesity. Or to end free speech on the internet.
But people aren’t machines — they are agents of their own destiny. In Scotland, alcohol consumption has gone up despite the introduction of the minimum alcohol price. Years of focusing on low-fat diets didn’t work. Butter is enjoying a resurgence, after it turned out margarine wasn’t a healthier choice after all.
Over the long term, it is free societies, where people are able to lead their own lives, that have better results in terms of health, the environment, and life expectancy. Rather than trying to micromanage people’s lives, we should focus on breaking down barriers to success whilst allowing us all the freedom to make our own choices.
When we move forward with Brexit, we can use this year’s Spending Review to think hard about how to do that. It requires a comprehensive approach, from better early-years education, to local roads and fibre, to liberating people to succeed in business. The big decisions this year are not limited to Brexit. Decisions about the future of our economy will have just as dramatic an effect on people’s lives and the country’s future.
There’s been a worrying outbreak of neo-puritanism in Britain, which I fear is in danger of holding us back. Instead of wagging our finger at people enjoying themselves and doing things differently, we should celebrate the potential of our freedom and individual choices to foster the new ideas that are going to shape the next century.