Resisting the nanny state – An interview with Christopher Snowdon

Snowdon on train



When I interviewed you previously in September 2015, you struck rather a pessimistic tone at the increasing power of the public health lobby and the nanny state, is it safe to say things have got worse since then?  

Very safe. Things generally do get worse. All you can do is hope to slow down the speed at which liberty is eroded.

The sugar tax has finally come into effect and Scotland has introduced minimum pricing. Wales will probably follow Scotland next year. Plain packaging for tobacco came in last year. Public Health England has gone completely berserk and is in the process of systematically degrading the entire food supply. A number of popular soft drinks, including Ribena, Irn-Bru and Lucozade, have been taken off the shelves and replaced with products which are, in effect, artificially sweetened forgeries.

It’s a dismal state of affairs and it’s only the start. The moment the Supreme Court allowed minimum pricing to become law, the temperance lobby started campaigning for warning labels on alcohol and a total advertising ban. A ban on so-called ‘junk food’ advertising is the number one priority of the anti-obesity brigade. The goal is, quite obviously, to copy anti-smoking legislation and apply it to what we eat and drink. It is endless.

In a recent Newsnight piece, you said ‘for the first time in a century the temperance movement is winning the political battle’. What is it about this point in our history that’s driving the latest rise in influence for this prohibitionist movement? What are the roots of this cultural phenomenon?

 The temperance lobby had a bad reputation after Prohibition collapsed and it took them decades to recover. When public health went through its metamorphosis and became a movement for coercive paternalism in the 1970s, temperance campaigners wormed their way in and portrayed themselves as ‘public health’ experts. Few people realise how prominent gospel temperance groups are in the ‘public health’ movement, both here and in Europe. The EU gives them money, needless to say.

They’ve gone about it in quite a clever way by inventing what they call the ‘whole population approach’. The theory is bullshit, but it is convenient bullshit because it states that the amount of dangerously excessive drinking rises and falls in line with the amount of alcohol drunk by the whole society. Therefore, if you want to tackle hazardous drinking, you don’t have to get your hands dirty by dealing with alcoholics, you just make moderate drinkers consume less and the alcoholics will magically follow. This allows them to follow the anti-tobacco playbook; with tobacco, overall consumption of cigarettes is a pretty good proxy for tobacco-related harm. And so, you end up with taxes, graphic warnings, advertising bans and all the other things which are supposed to reduce per capita consumption of alcohol but which actually do nothing to help people who are dependent drinkers.

Why are they and their ‘public health’ colleagues getting so much traction now? I think it reflects the mediocrity of political thought and the lack of a well-developed vision of the future. Introducing these policies makes politicians feel brave and important. On the Conservative side, I think there is a failure to understand that ‘public health’ is a fundamentally political movement that hates the market. It is a way of controlling industries without the hassle of nationalising them.

If there was to be a major change of policy, one would expect it to come from a centre right government. However, a Conservative chancellor (George Osborne) introduced the sugar tax, and this week hailed it as a success and called it ‘progressive policy in action’. With no political Party in the UK opposed to the nanny state, is resistance futile?

David Cameron was the absolute worst for this stuff. If you look at his record, he makes Gordon Brown look like Ayn Rand. After opposing the tobacco display ban in opposition, his party introduced it almost as soon as it took office. He introduced plain packaging at a time when no other government apart from Australia was showing much interest in it. He introduced the sugar tax. He set up Public Health England, which was only ever going to be a giant nanny state lobby group. He wanted to introduce minimum pricing and was only stopped because of Cabinet opposition.

It’s a shameful record. Whether it’s because he is a patrician Tory or because he thought that detoxifying the Tory brand meant caving in to the trendy authoritarianism of the ‘public health’ racket, I don’t know. I am slightly – but only slightly – encouraged that the current wave of lifestyle regulation is the legacy of the Cameron era and Theresa May has not added anything else to the pile. I don’t think May has any interest in nanny state politics but I fear she is too weak to stand up against a well-organised campaign.

Why is the government so quick to implement public health policies that fly in the face of the evidence? Is it just virtue signalling or part of the “band wagon effect”?

It’s kind of hard for politicians to resist it. There is an absolute army of state-funded campaigners and activist-academics working night and day to control people’s lifestyles. Take plain packaging, for example. I don’t think Cameron cared what colours were on cigarette packs and I’d be amazed if he thought plain packaging would make any difference to the smoking rate, but he made the mistake of holding a public consultation on it. This was a sign of weakness and that is what the nanny state vermin feed off. They scour the globe for weak and egotistical politicians. Once they see a glimmer of hope, they pour all their resources into it. So, they flooded Cameron’s consultation and spent the next few years accusing the government of doing a U-turn by not introducing it. They ran the usual line about caving in to the tobacco industry and made up all this kind of stuff about Lynton Crosby, and so, in the end, it was easier for Dave to pass the legislation than not.

If you have no principles – which Cameron doesn’t – it comes down to the simple question of whether the political costs of doing it outweigh the political costs of not doing it. Same with the sugar tax. The costs are widely dispersed. How many Tory voters are going to switch to Corbyn because their can of Coke costs an extra 10p? Approximately none, so if you’ve failed to meet your economic targets yet again – as George Osborne had in 2015 – what’s the harm in pulling a sugar tax out of your hat and getting the media to focus on Jamie Oliver’s gormless face instead of the size of the national debt?

Then you have the problem that Tony Blair created the pointless position of Minister for Public Health which gives junior politicians an opportunity to make a name for themselves by trampling all over personal freedom. These people have essentially nothing to do all day except be lobbied by single issue pressure groups and so they go native almost overnight. The position is currently occupied by Steve Brine whose Twitter photo shows him with Deborah Arnott (head of Action on Smoking Health) stood behind him with a big grin on her face. You couldn’t ask for a better visual metaphor of how that department operates. He’s currently trying to persuade his followers that the new Ribena “delivers the same taste”. It’s really quite pathetic to see a politician spouting corporate slogans which are patently untrue in an attempt to get people to buy products that have been ruined by their own policies.

From Public Health England down to local councils, you have this swarm of nanny state ideologues whose raison d’etre is taxing and banning. They then lobby politicians who have all the wrong incentives. It’s a recipe for disaster.

The British public can be quote conformist and seem content to grumble under their breath about the constant infringements on their freedom of choice rather than express the sort of displeasure that makes politicians think twice. Might there eventually be a straw that breaks the camel’s back?

2018 is the year when the nanny state gets real for a lot of people. We’re already seeing a backlash against the reformulation scheme with the few soft drinks that have been ruined. At the moment, not enough people realise that it is the government that is behind this. Public Health England are being deliberately secretive – they call it ‘health by stealth’. But eventually people are going to work out what’s going on.

I also expect to see a backlash against the sugar tax and, in particular, minimum pricing. It’s going to be a big shock to Scottish drinkers when they see how much prices go up. They’ve been sold the lie that it’s only the super-strength products that will be affected. That will change when they go to buy a slab of beer on May 1st.

I’m realistic. I know we’re never going to see people marching on the streets against this kind of stuff, but growing discontent should at least make politicians think twice about future policy gimmicks. In Westminster, support for nanny state policies is wide but shallow. Most politicians really don’t care either way and will go along with them for a small gain. Equally, though, they will go against them if there is a small cost.

Without a public backlash, do we risk sleepwalking into a nanny state dystopia of the kind advocated by Sarah Conly or Nick Cohen’s barmy vision in a recent Guardian article?

The Nick Cohen article is what you get when people start seeing the government as the solution to everything. Not just the solution, but the first port of call when anything irritates or upsets you. So, Nick’s given up drinking and started running. Good for him. There are no policy implications from a journalist going on a health kick, but it’s very important to him and so, being a statist, he thinks the government should act on his new preferences.

It’s amazing how often seemingly reasonable newspaper columnists embrace totalitarian health measures. David Aaronovitch struggles with dieting and so he wants sugary products banned from supermarkets. Janet Street-Porter recently demanded rationing be reintroduced to tackle the fictitious childhood obesity ‘epidemic’. A few years ago she wanted rationing for alcohol. These people don’t mind the idea of having a massive, intrusive government because they imagine themselves being in charge of it.

All Cohen was doing was taking the arguments about smokers and obese people being a drain on the NHS to their logical conclusion. If it is our duty as citizens to keep demand on the NHS to a minimum, there is no limit on what the government can do to us. People become servants of the NHS rather than the other way round. This is a terrifying outlook and the people who make this argument are not, I think, arguing in good faith. For a start, the economics of it are all wrong. It is the ageing population, not the prematurely dying population, that is really placing a ‘burden’ on public services. People like Cohen may not know this because the ‘public health’ racket routinely lies about it, but if you explained it to him I bet he’d still support coercive lifestyle regulation. It’s not about economics for these people. It’s not about the NHS. It’s about control. It’s about that weird, creepy characteristic that some people have of wanting to impose their own way of doing things on everybody else.

If the entire public health lobby were to be defunded, how would recommend spending the money saved?

 On healthcare. On social care. On something that people actually want and need.

People in the ‘public health’ racket claim that their policies pay for themselves in spades a few years down the line because they prevent diseases. In fact, most preventive medicine costs more in the long run because people live longer and run up more bills, but that’s almost irrelevant because nanny state policies generally don’t work in the first place. Sugar taxes have not worked. Plain packaging has not worked. We can say that categorically. The jury is in. The only place where they work is on a spreadsheet on an activist’s computer. Bone-headed attempts to make people fundamentally change their lifestyles by obstructing the market simply do not work. They do not address demand. They do not address the reasons that people making unhealthy lifestyle choices. They just punish people for making them.

It’s a disgrace that we are spending more than £4 billion a year on so-called ‘public health’ in this country. Not all of that money is squandered but a hell of a lot of it is. The government has essentially created a slush fund for a bunch of fanatics to play at being scientists and for a bunch of lobbyists to play at being doctors. Spend it on the health service.

How do you think issues of childhood obesity and other public health issues caused by poor diet, inactivity etc should be addressed in government policy, or should the state just leave us alone?

Obesity is not a public health issue. It’s not contagious and it does not require collective action. I am not obese and it makes no difference to me whether the obesity rate is twenty per cent or two per cent. By contrast, the government’s anti-obesity policies have a very real effect on me and on the rest of the three-quarters of the population who are not obese. Why should we put up with having our favourite drinks taken off the shelves and our favourite foods shrunk or degraded in a doomed attempt to make a bunch of couch potatoes lose weight? Why should obese people put up with it, for that matter? Who voted for this? How many people really want it?

As usual, it’s all being done under the pretext of think-of-the-children, but Public Health England have pretty abandoned that cover story now and admit that children and adults generally eat the same things so the entire food supply has to be ‘reformulated’.

I would accept that the state has more of a role to play in tackling childhood obesity because most children go to state schools, but the problem is vastly overstated anyway. The claims about how many kids are obese are simply fraudulent. If you look at the way they measure child obesity, it’s just laughable. It’s a classic Emperor’s New Clothes scenario. Anybody who picks their kids up from school or spends any time around children can see that very few of them are overweight, let alone obese, but we are told endlessly that a third of them are dangerously overweight and so we assume that there are corners of the country where entire schools are made up of little Billy Bunters. There are not.

There’s so much doublethink required to believe the narrative of ‘public health’. We can be told one minute that kids are going to die before their parents because of the crippling effects of the obesity ‘epidemic’ and the next minute we are told that one in six people are going to live to 100 and that social care can’t cope with the rising number of geriatrics. The majority of the claims made by nanny statists are at least partially inaccurate and a lot of them a demonstrably false. We’re being lied to. That’s what it comes down.