Rob Lyons is campaigns manager at Action on Consumer Choice.
A week ago, the editor of this site wrote on it about the new guidelines on alcohol consumption and the worrying loss of freedom in general in British society today.
The new guidelines on alcohol consumption, issued by the UK’s chief medical officers, are certainly a case in point. The new guidance suggests that drinkers should consume no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, the equivalent of about six pints of regular lager or seven standard pub measures of wine.
The news was greeted with bemusement by many regular drinkers – after all, 14 units in a single night is hardly an uncommon occurrence for many.
Such guidelines are not neutral and dispassionate assessments of the scientific evidence. The creation of guidelines is always with one eye on potential government action.
So it is no surprise to find among the Guidelines Development Group members and expert advisers not one but two professors from the Institute of Social Marketing at Stirling University – Gerard Hastings and Linda Bauld – who have no specialist knowledge of, for example, the risks of liver cirrhosis or lip cancer but are obsessed with the creation of health policy and the dangers of ‘Big Business’.
Nor is it a surprise to hear that there are already calls in the wake of the new guidance for graphic health warnings, so familiar to smokers, on alcoholic drinks bottles.
Conservatives will no doubt shake their heads at the socialist mindset of many public health policy wonks and campaigners. In his article, Paul suggested that the Freedom Association should do some research into the problem.
But it’s not just those on the political right who are concerned about this issue of freedom – and not just those on the left trying to limit it.
Those public health activists and academics who regard themselves as socialists offer a very particular version of what it means to be on the left, one that emphasises the weakness of individuals in the face of corporate power and regards the state as the individual’s guardian angel.
This is by no means the only way in which those on the left view the question. In the past, the labour movement and socialists often expressed a very different view of individuals – one that emphasised independence and strength, with a very clear understanding that the state should butt out of our lives as much as possible.
There was something of that attitude, for example, in John Reid’s concerns as health secretary that ministers should ‘be careful that we don’t patronise people’ – a point quickly lambasted by Andrew Lansley.
Moreover, there has always been a paternalistic side to conservatism, one that has emphasised defending moral values for the good of society – a side of conservatism that was always rather sceptical of freedom and was rather disturbed by the creative destruction of free markets.
At a time when the old strictures around church, marriage, and the family have far less purchase in society than in the past, this moralistic thinking has found a new outlet around public health.
So while some of the noisiest public health campaigners would regard themselves as from the left – and are certainly not fans of free markets – they are kicking at an open door when it comes to demanding greater state intervention from a certain breed of Conservative politician.
In other words, the battle for freedom of choice when it comes to how we live our lives actually cuts across traditional party lines. Some left-wing commentators, like Brendan O’Neill at Spiked and Ian Dunt at Politics.co.uk, are every bit as severe in their criticism of ‘nanny state’ policies as the IEA and the Adam Smith Institute.
The real dividing line today is between those whose instincts are paternalistic – believing that people in general are weak and demanding that the state or even businesses must step in to control our ‘bad habits’ – and those who have faith in the good sense of their fellow citizens to make choices for themselves.
They demand the freedom to be able to make what the do-gooders and moralists regard as the ‘wrong choices’.
That’s why Action on Consumer Choice has little interest in party politics. We’re only interested in defending the freedom of everyone to choose for themselves how to live their lives, and we’ll happily work with anyone who shares our independence of spirit.
But we do think there is a political opportunity for any party is prepared to defend personal freedom against the state.
It’s one of the reasons why Nigel Farage attracts some sympathy from many people who have little interest in Europe or immigration, or who may even disagree with Ukip on those issues. He’s a high-profile figure who is noisily defiant in defending the right to drink and smoke.
It’s also the reason why Conservative backbenchers like Philip Davies have attracted a loyal following. (Sadly, the centralising instincts of the Blair and Brown New Labour years have meant there is even less of such independent thought on the Labour benches.)
There are millions of people out there who aren’t part of the metropolitan set, care little for the Westminster bubble, and don’t obsess about the latest Twitter trend, and hence figure little in much mainstream media discussion about the latest health policy.
They’re also the ones looking at each other last Friday night in the pub and asking, “Six pints a week? Really?”. They also have votes. Maybe it’s time for a few more of our political leaders to represent them.