Conservatives are no longer sure of much, but they still think they know best and how to make us knuckle under, writes Brian Monteith
Back in 2009 David Cameron and George Osborne hit upon a great idea that could simultaneously present them as more liberal and open-minded than the interfering nannying and bullying Labour government while allowing them to show that they cared about the public’s wellbeing. It was called Nudge Theory and they adopted it with all the enthusiasm of religious converts.
Now, only three years later, nudge theory has been thrown to the winds and instead the Conservatives, aided and abetted by their Liberal Democrat allies, have cast off their pseudo-religious robes, donned the studded leathers of their socialist predecessors and become the new bullies – only bigger, meaner and more devout.
Nudge theory was made famous by the 2008 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein that mixed psychology with behavioural economics to offer up the oxymoron of libertarian paternalism. This was ideal for busybody British Conservatives looking for ways to defend the nanny state or American Democrats who needed some ideology to ease their guilt over the growth of state interference in our everyday lives.
It seemingly answered the contradiction that paternalist Conservatives find difficult to square: how do believers in small government, limited regulation and minimal intervention shape society to behave in the manner that they believe ideal? The answer is of course that Conservatives and any remaining Liberals should not be so patronising as to make choices for people other than providing laws that protect against the denial of freedom by others abusing their own.
Very simply nudge theory argued that in the design of choices that the state must provide it is possible, nay desirable, to point people to make the “right” selection that will be in their best interests. Hence, it was “libertarian”, because it did not force people to act in a certain way (such as smoking less tobacco or drinking less alcohol) but instead left them to make their own minds up – but it was paternalist because it would design the options in such a way as to make the “right choice” far more likely to be selected.
In a stroke, Conservatives such as Cameron and Osborne, firmly of the old Tory patrician school, could advocate subtle policies that would encourage people to give up smoking and heavy drinking, avoid salt, reject fatty foods and not take risks with their lives while not looking as threatening as Labour.
The first problem Conservative ministers found was that such is the scale of state bullying in the lives of the British people that there remain few opportunities where careful design of what is called “choice architecture” would result in the outcomes demanded by their department officials and the state-funded fake-charities that campaign for more lifestyle laws.
Thus, the Conservative attraction to nudge theory quickly waned. Indeed, it’s hard to say it was ever really taken seriously. True, a “nudge unit” was established, but no sooner had the Conservatives taken power in June 2010 than they had already started to turn to legislation to bully businesses and Britons rather than use discreet nudging.
The promise to hold back on the implementation of Labour’s laws for the hiding of tobacco on sale was the first casualty, with supermarkets introducing screens and drawers this weekend and smaller shops having to do the same within three years.
Next are plans to introduce plain packaging of all cigarettes. Any pretence that this illiberal and anti-competitive policy is only under consideration is belied by behind-the-scenes funding for public sector campaigns advocating the policy be adopted. NHS Bristol Primary Care Trust is funding the Smoke-free South West campaign with £468,462 of public money for a full media campaign with leaflets, roadside hoardings and newspaper advertising.
It is as bad an example of a government paying for supposedly independent lobbying in favour of legislation it would privately like to introduce while pretending it is open-minded as one might imagine.
The other problem that Conservatives have found is that they, without any philosophy that defines where the limits of the state should lie, have become powerless and intellectually incoherent when required to challenge all the public health bodies that the state now funds. They simply accept their junk-science, their false claims (such as reductions in heart attacks and falls in smoking rates that are either untrue or even the exact opposite of the truth), roll over and agree to accede to their demands for more laws and more bullying.
True Conservatives would be looking to repeal or reform bad laws rather than add to them, but faced with nothing to nudge and no understanding of what Tories are for, more laws are what England is now receiving – often the same laws as are proposed by the SNP’s ice-queen of public health, Nicola Sturgeon.
Thus, all the new restrictions on tobacco that were first mooted by Sturgeon are finding favour with Conservatives, while her campaign for minimum pricing of alcohol – that was exposed to a humiliating critical analysis in the previous parliament – is now the policy of choice from David Cameron.
The Cameron and Clegg bullying does not stop there, but is now moving into the areas of surveillance and secret courts that the Home Office and justice officials were peddling in Labour’s time. Meet the new bullies, same as the old bullies, to paraphrase Pete Townshend’s famous song, Won’t Get Fooled Again.
But fooled is exactly how the public must feel, for yet again they have been lied to by duplicitous politicians. Nudge has become a shove or even a forced march. The bully state is alive and well and Britain is becoming the greatest example for others to copy.
• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org