That’s it. The nanny state has won. The nudgers and naggers are victorious. The buzzkilling, behaviour-policing new elite that sees smoking as sinful, boozing as lethal and being podgy as immoral has conquered the political sphere. Its miserabilist writ now extends even into a political zone where once it held no sway: Boris Johnson’s brain.
Yes, the once nanny-slating mind that lurks beneath that world-famous mop of self-consciously untidy blonde hair has sadly succumbed to the instinct to harangue people for being fat and having fun. Yesterday Boris announced that he is introducing a sugar tax at City Hall, hiking up the price of all sugar-added soft drinks by 10p in an attempt to wean City Hall workers off the evil, fat-making fizzy stuff. He’s basically punishing his staff for the crime of having a sweet tooth.
Et tu, Boris? This is the man who a few years ago branded the nanny state ‘demented’. In 2006, pre-mayoralty, when he was plain MP for Henley, he said there was ‘too much’ top-down pressure on people to consume healthy fare: ‘I say let people eat what they like.’ When the press, especially the self-righteously thin, kale-consuming sections of it, slagged off two mums who shoved chips and pies through the school-gates to save their kids from the salt-less, soulless grub being served up in schools thanks to Jamie bloody Oliver, Boris defended them. ‘Why shouldn’t they push pies though the railings?’, he demanded. Yes!
Yet now, Boris ‘let people eat what they like’ Johnson is telling off City Hall folk for drinking what they like. City Hall has become the first government building to introduce what the media are referring to as a sugar levy. (A sugar levy! What odd, fun-less times we live in.) ‘I hope this initiative will allow us to raise awareness… and encourage people to think about their diets’, said Boris.
Boris, is that really you? Has someone checked that the real BoJo isn’t chained to a sink in the cellar of some public-health think-tank with a dastardly health-spouting robot sent in his stead to remake City Hall staff, and then all of Blighty, as obedient sugar-dodging drones?
The fate of Boris, going from standing up for pie-pushing mums to slapping a tax on cans of Fanta, shows how powerful is the lure of the nannying impulse. Everyone who enters politics seems to get ironed into a head-shaking panicker about what people eat and drink and do, a purveyor of what Labour’s Frank Field chillingly called ‘the politics of behaviour’. The conquering of Boris is a sad day for liberty, because if even this much-loved, crumpled figure of common sense cannot resist the strange, amorphous pressure on all politicians to raise their forefinger and wag it at fatties and boozers, then what hope is there that any other politician might start to wonder if it is really his or her job to police our behaviour?
That’s the worst thing about a sugar tax. Not only is it a mean levy on the sweetest of foods and drinks, on grub that makes kids grin and old people close their eyes in joy as they sup their sugary tea; it is also another official encroachment into our personal behaviour. The question we should be asking in 2016 is this: what earthly business is it of the political class whether we drink Coke, neck beer, smoke fags, get fat, have unprotected sex, or do anything else that might be a little bit bad for us but which is fun? Ditch the politics of behaviour, guys; focus on actual politics.
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9 February 2016 | 7 p.m. | IET London