Nothing is more tiresome than to find ourselves subjected by those in authority to a coercive morality. When politicians or officials suppose that because they possess, or imagine they possess, a superior understanding of the right thing to do, they are entitled to order us around, they create enormous resentment.
This is what people mean when they condemn “the nanny state”. We bridle at the implication that we are infants, unable to make decisions for ourselves, obliged to respect the higher wisdom of the grown ups.
We expect to be regarded as free men and women, whose consent cannot be taken for granted, but must be won by addressing us as equals and respecting our opinions.
All of which makes communicating any message to do with public health tricky. If handed down from on high, it is likely to be counter-productive.
But if delivered in a tactful, watered down way, in order to avoid putting people’s backs up, it can seem too feeble and evasive to be worth saying.
Then people start to call for “the smack of firm government”: something they would almost certainly find objectionable if actually administered.
The Government recognised, at the start of the pandemic, that it had to show it was listening to the best scientific and medical advice. For ministers to start telling us what to do purely on their own authority would have been intolerable.
But there was still more than a hint of moral coercion in the way ministers wrapped themselves in the NHS. However much one may revere the memory of Sir Henry Willink, the Conservative Minister of Health whose photograph appears at the head of this article, and who in 1944 announced the setting up of the NHS, and however grateful one may feel for the efforts of those who now work for the service, one does not wish to feel compelled by the Government to issue a blanket seal of approval.
Freely given praise is one thing, forced applause quite another. We do not want to be told whom to cheer, or how often and loudly to do so.
The wider public understands this. The infuriated moralists who infest social media, denouncing with puritanical self-righteousness whatever heretical deviations they can find from their own narrowly defined yet often rapidly evolving version of the truth, tend not to understand it.
Oddly enough, a good nanny understands the need to give children, and those children’s parents, a certain freedom of initiative. Mary Poppins got Mr Banks, that purblind banker and father, to change his ideas.
Politicians and officials seldom have the confidence to do this. They suppose they should pretend to an almost totalitarian infallibility.
Fewer and fewer areas of life seem to be spared this approach. Ministers even pretend to know what to do about obesity.
If they contented themselves with the less ambitious role of encouraging the rest of us to show what we can do, the results would be better.