“We need to be big, bold, brave and, frankly, act like a parent.” So said Jamie Oliver recently when championing a sugar tax. But since the British public doesn’t have the power to impose taxes, what he meant is not “we need” but “it needs” – that’s to say, the Government, the state.
His comparison between the state and a parent infuriated some on the Centre-Right, for two main reasons. The first is reason-led: if the state really does become a parent, its citizens will inevitably become infantilised. The sense of self-reliance without which they cannot flourish will be stunted. The second is emotion-driven. We all have relationships with our parents. Some are successful, others less so. For those whose upbringing has been troubled, the image of the state as a parent can be stifling, threatening – alarming.
None the less, Oliver’s comparison was in one sense apt. As Harry Phibbs has reminded this site’s readers, the state actually is a parent to some children – that’s to say, those in care – and sometimes turns out to be a very bad one. But in any event, the comparison between the state and a parent has a peculiar fascination and grip, at least in Britain – at least, in the form of one between government and the person who, in some upper middle-class homes, used to substitute for the mother. In other words, the nanny.
More broadly, though, the image is out of place. We are not children of the state, and can’t be in a free society. It makes more sense to say that we are children of our country – that’s to say, that we should view it with the love that, hopefully, we have for our parents, and feel a sense of duty to it. And while we may change our country (by, say, moving abroad and renouncing our citizenship) we cannot shake off our upbringing, any more than a child can shake off his own. So it usually turns out to be. I have met libertarians who hate the state. But I have never met one who didn’t love his country.
Indeed, when a man feels no identification with his nation at all, something is going wrong – as in the case of Scottish nationalists, who deny that their country is anything other than Scotland. Islamist terrorists present a threat to Britain that is no less existential but inherently violent and totalitarian (which Scottish nationalism is not). If there are enough of them, public safety is at risk: bombs explode on tube trains; innocents are murdered. Hence the main reason given for the Government’s proposed new Investigatory Powers Act, which Garvan Walshe writes about on this site today.
These plans and others like it provoke another family image from our British gallery – Big Brother. Indeed, there is a Big Brother Watch, which occasionally contributes to ConservativeHome, and doesn’t like Theresa May’s plans at all. The analogy is suggestive. If we are children of our country, at least by extension, the state can be seen as a creation of it, too. The country made the state, not the other way round. The state has emerged from Britain’s history, traditions, reforms, culture. We thus have a relationship with it that is not unlike a sibling one.
We will write about the Bill itself tomorrow. But there is an attitude to the state which should shape our view of it, even before we know all the detail, as well as a mass of other legislation. It should be not Big Brother, but Little Brother. That’s to say, we shouldn’t hate it: it has claims on us, even those of affection (what Conservative does not revere the armed forces?), but we have claims on it, too. And we are first in the pecking order. Little Brother must not get too big for his boots. If the sibling comparison works at all, then there should be a healthy bit of sibling rivalry.
And if the Government, therefore, says: “The security services need this Bill”, we should view the claim with a natural sympathy, but not accept it out of hand. If we find out that 38 bodies in total will be entitled to access the records for the purpose of “detecting or preventing crime”, we should ask a lot of questions about who they are, whether they really need these powers, if there are downsides as well as upsides and, if so, what they are. Walshe’s depiction of one of them today is droll – but also frighteningly plausible.
I apologise if the family metaphor is overworked, or even out of place completely. All I can say is: I didn’t start it. In any case, thinking about the role of the state is important – to Conservatives, to everyone. As I write, two gin-scented tears are trickling down the side of my nose.