Rob Lyons is science and technology director at the Academy of Ideas and a columnist for the online magazine spiked.
When the Scottish Parliament was founded in May 1999, it was claimed that this would bring power closer to the people. No more impositions of unpopular Westminster policies like the “poll tax”. Finally, there would be an institution that could ensure that Scotland’s laws reflected public opinion north of the border. In reality, Holyrood has led the race for greater state intervention in people’s lives, and power has never felt more removed from voters’ concerns.
The most celebrated example is the smoking ban, implemented in 2006. As Brian Monteith notes in his new report, The McNanny State: How Scotland became a puritan’s playpen, it’s a huge source of pride to members of the Scottish Parliament that Scotland was the first home nation to introduce such a policy.
If only it had stopped there. Since 2007, however, Labour’s interventionist instinct has been taken up with gusto by successive SNP administrations. In addition to measures imposed by Westminster and Brussels, the Scottish Government has banned smoking in prisons and within 15 metres of hospital buildings. Its latest tobacco control plan, published last month, will consider a ban on smoking in and around social housing, plus measures to make tobacco “less available”, including restrictions on the number and density of tobacco retailers in any particular area. Scotland also has minimum pricing for alcohol, which means that it must cost at least 50 pence per unit – an amazing interference in pricing, which was so controversial it was mired in the courts for years before going ahead in May this year.
While much of what the Scottish Government has done on lifestyle issues has been matched or even surpassed elsewhere – Westminster, for example, introduced a tax on sugary drinks, and outlawed tobacco branding – Scotland has taken this illiberal interventionist outlook into whole new areas, from its proposal for a state-appointed guardian for every child, through to imprisoning football fans for singing the wrong kind of songs (a law thankfully now repealed, despite the best efforts of SNP ministers).
Monteith covers this and more, but his report goes well beyond these observations. As a former Conservative member of the Scottish Parliament, he had first-hand experience of how such legislation came about. One revealing point relates to when the Scottish pub trade organised a presentation for MSPs about the potential economic impact of a smoking ban. “Such was the lack of concern for community pubs and bars,” he notes, “I was the only MSP to turn up. Forcing publicans, hoteliers and club owners to eject a substantial number of their customers on to the streets, to be huddled in Scotland’s often cold and inhospitable climate, was legalised bullying. It was officially endorsed coercion and today those responsible are still extremely proud of it”.
A trend towards puritanical lifestyle intervention is not exclusive to Scotland or even the UK, but there does seem to be something distinctive about the extent of Holyrood’s willingness to punish or even criminalise our “bad” habits. Part of it is down to the desire of the Scottish Parliament to make a name for itself, to justify its existence by being different. Some might point to a continuing influence from the churches, but as Monteith notes, “neither Calvinist Presbyterianism nor conservative Catholicism have much influence in modern day Scotland. Each has their flock but few if any politicians draw on theological or scriptural influences when developing new policies”.
Instead, Monteith points to an unholy alliance between politicians and a coterie of “experts” and taxpayer-funded campaign groups. He notes that the anti-smoking group, ASH Scotland, which “serves” just a twelfth of the UK population, has a bigger budget and employs many more staff than its “national” counterpart in London, thanks to significant public funding. Moreover, the same people can be found in leading positions in both anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol groups in Scotland.
A busybody clique has formed between the political and chattering classes – a clique that is out of touch with the concerns of most ordinary voters. For example, polls conducted on behalf of Forest, the smokers’ campaign group that published Monteith’s report, have found that a majority of Scots would be happy to relax the smoking ban by allowing separate well-ventilated smoking rooms in Scotland’s pubs and clubs.
According to the same surveys, tackling smoking, obesity, and alcohol misuse are not top priorities for most Scots, yet campaigners want to increase the minimum price of alcohol, crack down on “junk food”, and introduce more tobacco control measures. The new obesity action proposals even include a “pre-conception action plan” to “raise awareness of the importance of pregnancy planning and nutrition”. The Scottish Government wants to intervene in people’s lives even when they are still just a “twinkle in their daddy’s eyes”.
But perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of any political opposition to Scotland’s McNanny state. One feels Monteith’s pain at how his former party, the Scottish Conservatives, has been at best fitful opponents of these measures. As he notes, there has always been a patrician side to the Conservative Party. But Margaret Thatcher’s success was in part based on the idea of getting the state out of our lives, and there are still plenty of supporters of this more liberal – in the proper sense – approach in the party’s ranks. The fact that they seem ever more isolated, that there is little sense of a principled defence of our personal autonomy and freedom to choose, is a crying shame for those of us who would like at least some debate about the new paternalism.
The fact that such debate is increasingly rare is a sign that politicians pay more heed to their own social circles in and around Holyrood and Westminster than they do to the people who elected them. What we have instead, as Monteith observes, is a “bully state”, which increasingly pays lip service to our right to live our lives as we see fit without excessive state intervention.