The PM becomes everything he once railed against

From rebellious child to Chief Nanny within 12 months – what happened?

Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson recently celebrated a full year in office. It’s been a pretty eventful year, starting with the culmination of a long battle to remove the previous incumbent, through a fraught general election (which he of course won handsomely), the official departure of the UK from the EU and now a global crisis of historic proportions.

It’s a job he always wanted, apparently from early childhood, and so achieving the goal should have been momentous. And maybe it was for a short while, but it seems the enormity of what he had taken on hit him early, and hit him hard.

The arrival of Johnson into Number 10 and the subsequent defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party heralded a new dawn in a politics that had been characterised by thin margins and difficult backbenches for the previous 10 years. He could govern freely. But what was it all really for? Why did he want it? For what point and purpose was he to obtain this office and level of power?

We all know who and what Jeremy Corbyn was. He never hid it and never really changed, even as the decades went by. It’s not difficult to imagine what a Corbyn premiership would have looked like, especially if he had a whippable majority the likes of which Johnson now enjoys. Whatever your view on the guy, he had principles and plans. We can imagine the country’s relationship with Israel would have changed significantly, rail companies would have started to move into public ownership, taxes would have risen, wealth taxes introduced, private schools abolished, the works.

But turning back to the chap who actually won – what does he stand for? What does he believe? And why does he want this job? When he got into Number 10, what was the driving vision, the force, the true goal of being there? What troubled him so greatly about the state of the nation that he was determined to lead it? What made him tick? Well, it’s difficult to pinpoint. But surely there are clues in his background and writing?

Most notoriously, he apparently penned two articles for the Telegraph before the referendum campaign kicked off – one in favour of Leave, one in favour of Remain. There are charitable readings of this, there are slightly less charitable ones. But the plain fact remains – he didn’t know.

In fairness, once he had chosen, he stuck to it, and continues to do so. But this is surely due more to political reality than any real conviction on the matter. He had readily and viciously attacked Britain’s membership of the EU in the past – but it suited him just fine back then, when it was all easy and hypothetical and grew his audience. Then it became easier to be its defender when he obtained office, so he did that. Does it bother him that much?

And then we come to the latest drive to ‘combat obesity’. I make no remark on the validity of this strategy, the requirement for it, nor even whether this is something that should or should not be happening. But again, less than a year into securing the top job, he shows all his previous utterances to be mere vapour.

One would have got the impression from his many columns and writings on the topic that Mr. Johnson was not just an advocate of the freedom of the individual, but positively rabid on the subject of so-called ‘nanny state’ intervention. Yet the second he takes a briefing from PHE on the matter, he’s a convert. What drives this? And how did that happen so fast?

As recently as July of 2019, he promised a review of so called ‘sin taxes’, vowing to end the “continuing creep of the nanny state”. He said the new taxes would “clobber those who can least afford it”.

Looking back to his column history, in 2004 he wrote a piece headlined “Face it: it’s all your own fat fault”. In it, he argued that “the more the state tries to take responsibility for the problem, the less soluble the problem will become”. Seems pretty straightforward. But years ago, right?

A couple of years later, he attacked Jamie Oliver for trying to introduce more nutritious food into schools. “If I was in charge I would get rid of Jamie Oliver and tell people to eat what they like”. Well now you are in charge, Mr Johnson. He allegedly also said of mothers who were pushing ‘unhealthy’ food through the railings of their children’s schools, “I say let people eat what they like. Why shouldn’t they push pies through the railings?”

He also used his Telegraph column to rail against the ‘cack-brained’ EU plan to introduce compulsory child booster seats up to the age of 12, claiming they were “poking their noses into the back seats of our cars”. Compulsory face coverings anyone? No state intervention there, no siree.

Perhaps an inkling as to how he might deal with a national health emergency came in 2012 when he penned a column headlined “To swim, perchance to drown, is an undeniable human right”. He was responding to a Port of London decision to ban swimming in the Thames without a permit. The driving message was that risk taking is part of life and that people should be allowed to do so without the nanny state wagging it’s bony finger at us. Ahem…

His flowery language, as has been typical of Johnson over the years, didn’t hold back: “this river-swimming ban is of a piece with the namby-pamby, risk-averse, mollycoddled airbagged approach that is doing so much economic damage to Britain”. Does this sound like the kind of man who, if ever trusted with power during a pandemic, would impose a lockdown, restrict freedoms, ‘mollycoddle’ and ‘airbag’ a ‘namby-pamby’ and ‘risk-averse’ population? Again, I make no comment on those policies such as they are, but why did Johnson, of all people, impose them when he has always set himself up as a defender of liberty against the strong arm of the state? If he really believed the state does more damage than individuals free to make their own choices, why did he not stand on that principle when it really came to a head?

This is not an argument for or against lockdowns or masks or anything like that. It’s a point about what different leaders would do when faced with these challenges. Lockdown wasn’t inevitable, nor compulsory face coverings. Other options were, and still are, available. You may believe these things to be vital, but ask yourself: why would a libertarian styled leader take these routes?

It goes without saying that having had Covid-19, and had it badly, that that would have an effect on him. A close brush with mortality would be enough to scare anyone. I have no wish to take away the impact that would have had.

But principles long held are typically difficult to shake. Those previously mentioned ‘nanny state’ columns were written when he was hugely overweight. He is still overweight – so what else changed? At the moment it feels like the walls crumble just a little too easily. As though the typically pro-immigration PM might suddenly become a Farage-style drawbridge puller, or become a puritanical religious believer, or start believing that Churchill was really a racist and should be erased from our collective memory.

Is this uncharitable? Perhaps. It’s just hard to watch this without imagining that it would simply not have happened with any number of other leaders. Imagine for a second that Corbyn had become the PM and secured a healthy majority. The way Johnson has behaved since taking office is like Jeremy Corbyn agreeing with Netanyahu that the West Bank settlements should be annexed, introducing a tax cut for the wealthy, repealing the sugar tax and sending a birthday card to Donald Trump. Maybe even writing a leader for the Telegraph, reintroducing grammar schools, expanding Trident and outlawing industrial action. All completely anathema – but of course, we always knew who he was and what he thought, so that would all have been crazy and straight of the blue.

Yet with Johnson, we just nod along. As though this is always what he thought and that it’s ok to, not just slightly bend your principles for the purposes of realpolitik, but turn fully 180degrees without a second’s thought and act as though this is normal. What is an anti-nanny-stater doing talking about sugar taxes? How can he think nobody has noticed?

Maybe because in reality, it actually doesn’t matter any more. Because political tribalism is so deeply embedded that nobody is voting for anyone any more, just against the other guy. It’s easy to scoff and point at those who had hope in the guy, who voted for him because they took him at his word. It’s difficult to feel sympathy, especially when it has been obvious to many just what kind of politician he is. I mean him no ill will, I’m sure he is perfectly pleasant company and, by all accounts, a rather personable chap.

But relying on his principles and sense of duty, his sense of driving purpose? Sorry, but he has never provided any evidence that he should be trusted to maintain a certain set of holding principles against all weathers and all comers. So why would we expect him to do so when push came to shove?

So there we have it: Al Johnson, from rebellious child to Chief Nanny. Who’d’a thunk it?

Libertarianism: attractive, but ultimately flawed – Part 1

It is not without merits, but the pragmatist in me can’t see it working in practice

Libertarianism – it’s an ideology that has its merits. It’s one of those things that I love in theory, but know I’d be disappointed with in practice. A good dose of small state with a great dollop of trusting people to live their lives as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. What could be more conducive to a happy, healthy and free society?

Well then, let’s have a brief look at Libertarianism. It is defined on Wikipedia as seeking to “maximise political freedom and autonomy, emphasise freedom of choice, voluntary association, and individual judgement” Libertarians “believe in individual rights and share a scepticism of authority and state power”.

All of which sounds great. But the key words for me are ‘maximise’ and ‘scepticism’. This implies to me that we cannot have complete political freedom or autonomy, nor can we totally dismiss the role of the state. So, whilst I would generally align myself with these stated aims, it becomes a matter of where along those axes you draw the line. And, if I may borrow and adjust a quote from Joey, to most pure Libertarians, ‘you can’t even see my line – my line is a dot to you.’

The state should not interfere in the freedoms and liberty of people unless there is a very good reason to do so

I tend to believe that the state should not interfere in the freedoms and liberty of people unless there is a very good reason to do so. ‘Very good reason’ is the space in which the conversation needs to happen. One person’s good reason is another person’s tyranny.

Strident Libertarians would have it that laws such as the smoking ban or the recent legislation limiting Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) are outrageous interferences in the liberty of the inhabitants of Great Britain. The principles of small state limited government, freedom of choice and autonomy of the person would dictate that these laws are grotesque and not required in a society that ought to allow its citizens to smoke and gamble as much or as little as they please. And yet most of us can see the good reasons for these laws.

Taking the smoking ban for a start, if we were to strictly adhere to the Libertarian ideal, people ought to be able to smoke whenever and wherever they like. But it is perfectly clear that doing this doesn’t just affect them. I won’t go through the ins and outs of the effects (or lack thereof) of passive smoking, because that’s only part of the point. Suffice to say that restaurants, bus stops and Anfield stadium have become much more tolerable places to breathe since the ban. But then, as a non-smoker, I would say that.

I’m not in the least saying that people shouldn’t smoke. That is absolutely for each individual to decide for themselves. I also think the ban is starting to go too far and is unnecessarily embarrassing and shaming people who do smoke. The images on the packaging are quite intolerable (yes, I know that is the point) and the prices artificially ridiculous due to tax pressure. These things always affect the poor the most, and this should be taken into account when forcing such laws through Parliament.

But this is where the conversation happens. I can’t imagine a situation where pure ideology makes you either for the complete banning of cigarettes, which are in mass use, or for the complete and untrammelled freedom to infringe on everyone else’s space with your choices. So we need to discuss where the line is.

Let’s take the other example mentioned – the reduction in the amount any person can gamble on a FOBT has been reduced from £100 to £2. That may sound draconian, until you realise this amount of money is the stake that you can wager every twenty seconds. These machines, wherever they are, can suck up thousands and thousands of pounds.

The passing of this law prompted the Spectator columnist, editor of Spiked and staunch libertarian, Brendan O’Neill to complain that the ‘snobs had won‘ the battle over FOBTs. Now I don’t mind Brendan – sometimes he speaks complete sense, other times absolute wham. This feels much more like the latter.

What I do like about him is that he defends the working classes, the poor and the Northern against the horrible caricatures that can so often be painted in national media. He hates paternalism and nanny state-ism, as do I to a large extent.

The state can be overly paternalistic and better off people can have a snooty way of discussing anyone who doesn’t live in a comfortable neighbourhood and vote Remain…

But taking some lines from his piece, it feels much more like ideology than practical politics.

“I know people who frequent betting shops, mainly to bet on horses, and they will occasionally spend 10 or 20 quid on an FOBT if they’re bored. I expect that’s how the majority of FOBT-users engage with these machines.”

Great – then they won’t be affected by this then will they? They can still gamble their 10 or 20 quid. And the majority of users, I’m sure, do just use them for this purpose. But what about the minority who don’t? I’m not going to get into ‘addiction’ and what that word actually means in theory or practice, but the simple fact is that people can and do sit at these machines and watch their money disappear at a ferocious speed.

“A few years ago the Guardian sent a reporter to Slough — you know things are bad when the Guardian is willing to enter Slough — to investigate FOBTs. She watched in horror as people’s ‘£20 notes disappeared into them’. Yeah, well, I’ve watched in horror as impeccably middle-class people have queued for hours to get into some hip new restaurant and proceeded to spend £40 on glorified hotdogs and dirty chips. We all do stupid things with our money.”

Apart from the nice little dig at the Guardian, which seems to me to be an accurate summation of Guardian attitudes, the difference here is surely obvious? Endless £20 notes going into a machine (which, remember, can take £100 every twenty seconds) is not the same as a very silly (but probably well off) person overpaying for poncey food.

He writes well and much of this piece is persuasive. Whilst I back the legislation, I often recoil at the tone in which the topic is discussed. I agree that the state can be overly paternalistic and better off people can have a snooty way of discussing anyone who doesn’t live in a comfortable neighbourhood and vote Remain. All the same, I think restricting the amount you can put into these machines isn’t really harming anyone expect the gambling industry – you can still use the machine, you can still see the flashing lights and the spinning wheels, if that’s your thing. You’re just losing less each time.

The other big aspect of Libertarianism – an unshakeable faith in the power of the market no matter what – is something that is attractive, but not without its faults. I’ll come back to this in Part 2.

I’m all for reducing the power and influence of the state. It is too often creeping into our lives where it isn’t needed or welcome and it treats far too many people like they need to be saved and looked after. But it has its place.

The theory of Libertarianism is exactly how I would love the world to be. Alas, the world wouldn’t work like this in practice. It’s a shame, but we have to be pragmatic about these things.

If only hardcore Socialists took the same view…