“Central planning, judicial activism, and the nanny state all presume vastly more knowledge than any elite have ever possessed.” – Thomas Sowell, 2007
What is there not to like about the junk food advertisement ban? Is obesity not an “epidemic,” one requiring a “public health” response and government coercion? After months of unprecedented state interference in private matters, why object to a little more?
As it turns out, there is plenty to take issue with. For a start, obesity is neither infectious nor a disease. Framing it in these terms when we are enduring a real pandemic that has claimed millions of lives and reshaped the world is as absurd as it is untrue. And we should be identifying and pursuing ways of becoming a freer society than we were in February 2020, not a more paternalistic one.
Then there is the fact that there is no official definition of “junk food,” with the list of unhealthy products covered by this ban being ludicrously expansive. This is not just Big Macs and doughnuts; it is foods that many of us would view as part of a balanced diet.
Consider also the impact of a ban on junk food adverts on TV before 9pm, and a total ban online, on both the hospitality and advertising industries. The latter warns it could come at a cost of £200m per year.
The list goes on. By the government’s own calculations it will reduce children’s diets by a meagre five calories a day – the equivalent of a third of a cherry tomato. And watch out for those Government figures. Pardon the pun, but given that they add weight to the arguments of those opposing their intrusiveness into our lives, would anyone be amazed if new and revised figures emerged during the course of detailed legislation? But even if the impact of these proposals was amplified by ‘the science’, it would still come at too high a cost to individual freedom and liberty.
And this is just the thin end of the wedge. For a moment back in winter, it looked like we had woken up and smelt the full English breakfast. It was reported that the advertisement ban would be discarded, which allowed the free market minded to hope, especially given the disbanding of Public Health England, that this might signal pushback against nanny state intrusion. Alas, no.
The appetite for ill-conceived, unworkable ideas is growing: we have plans to force pubs to disclose the number of calories in every drink they serve, just as they begin to fill their tills after months of lockdown. Plans to end deals like “buy one get one free” on foods high in fat, sugar and salt – a regressive measure that will hit the poorest consumers hardest while doing nothing to reduce our waistlines. Plans for further legislation around nutritional labelling – adding cost, probably not adding clarity.
We left the EU in part as a reaction to over-regulation. I remember well during my time as an MEP how skewed towards large corporations the regulatory regime could be in Brussels. If, having taken the difficult and painful decision to leave the bloc, we fail to roll back the overreach then people will start to ask what the last four years was all about. If freedoms regained are never applied, then what was the point? The food laws will diminish freedoms in everyday life, not just those of the important, but more esoteric and common room kind, that our political elites from time to time do remember to respect.
Pub chains and hospitality businesses contribute billions to our economy and have borne the brunt of the lockdown. Why has the public health establishment succeeded in shoving policymakers towards this ill-thought-out measure? I had hoped that the self-professed Party of Business would step back from the brink but despite a number of colleagues joining me in opposing the legislation, the Second Reading seems likely to go through today.
It would have helped, mind you, if more food and advertising businesses had been prepared to be more vocal about this. Would it be too cynical to suggest that many seemed happy to let others make their case for them out of a misplaced sense that it is safer to stay in the Government’s good books? And will we now see them hurrying to pledge to “work with” and “cooperate with” the Department of Health and Social Care in the hope that yet more controls over their businesses and our freedoms are not forthcoming?
Having led a Council myself, I am – usually – proud to be a Vice-President of the Local Government Association, but on this issue local has been as national in their eagerness to find more ways to tell people what to do. The – cross-party – LGA states: “We also welcome plans to prohibit advertisements of products high in fat, sugar or salt being shown on TV and online before 9pm. It is disappointing that the Bill does not include plans to give councils powers to ban junk food advertising near schools, which is something that councils and the LGA have campaigned for.” Cue the man from the Council with the clipboard measuring the distance between the billboard and the school to see whether it “conforms to the regulations”. How depressing!
This government was elected on a mandate to unleash the potential of British enterprise. I was proud to fight and win re-election under that banner. To many, 2019 represented a shift away from a short-lived flirtation with leftist policies of the energy price cap ilk. Now we run the risk of implementing economically illiterate proposals that will punish the hospitality sector, clobber businesses, and put fire in the belly of fervent nanny statists.
Vaccine breakthroughs proved that free enterprise works. Yet this crisis appears to be paving the way for measures that stifle entrepreneurship and competition: more red tape, more paternalism, greater state interference. A Conservative Party that claims to stand behind small business and promote individual responsibility should not be pushing through policy which damages both.
It has been a miserable 16 months for many of us, a time when we have all had to adhere to regulations that curtailed our freedoms, right up to the state telling us what to put on our faces. As a beleaguered British public emerges from this crisis, the last thing it needs when stepping into the light is a new set of infantilising rules.
Not so long ago, Boris Johnson would have written a cracking newspaper column about policies like these and taken them apart. Surely, he is still a believer in freedom of choice? Covid should not be used as an excuse to expand the nanny state further and in the months to come it will be essential more than ever that platforms such as 1828, of which I am now Advisory Board member, to continue to stand up for freedom. Where better to start than by standing up to the increasingly authoritarian public health lobby?