If reports in today’s papers are to be believed, the government will propose a new raft of nanny state policies on Monday. This time the target is food. A ban on advertising sugary, salty and fatty food on television before 9 p.m. is said to have been given the green light. The government will also dictate where these products can be legally displayed in shops. No more Lindor at the entrance. No more bacon at the end of the aisle.
Despite my libertarian disposition, I take a perverse satisfaction in some of this. The television companies that spent years hyping the childhood obesity ‘epidemic’ and demanding tough action from government are now set to lose £200 million a year in advertising fees. Channel 4 might finally reflect on the wisdom of employing Jamie Oliver to make one-sided agitprop.
Similarly, the food industry might finally realise that the ‘public health’ lobby is serious in its rhetoric about ‘Big Food’ being the new Big Tobacco. Food companies went along with Public Health England’s ludicrous reformulation scheme because of the thinly veiled threat of more draconian laws if they didn’t comply. Now that the government is going to pass the laws anyway, they might awake from their slumber and stand up for themselves. Anti-smoking legislation started with a ban on television commercials before 9 p.m. – they must see which way the wind is blowing.
There is also a strange comfort in being able to abandon hope in Boris Johnson so soon into his premiership. It saves time in the long run. To be honest, his libertarianism was already in doubt when he put us all under house arrest for three months but, to be fair, that was under exceptional circumstances. However, if a Conservative government with an 80 seat majority, a liberal leader and an anti-establishment chief advisor is going to impose the kind of purse-lipped, micro-managing, finger-wagging, lemon-sucking, nanny-knows-best, censorious, anti-business, killjoy policies that even Gordon Brown never seriously entertained, then we have to conclude that nothing short of revolution is going to put the paternalistic political class out of its stride. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, Public Health England always gets in.
Finally, it is at least pleasurable to think of all the headaches the government will now have as it tries to turn the dozy ideas of ‘public health’ fanatics into workable legislation. Most of the policies that Johnson is toying with have been dusted down from the fag end of the Cameron era. They were gathering dust for a good reason. They are not just illiberal and ineffective, they are impractical and illogical. Since there is no legal definition of ‘junk food’, the government will find itself in the same preposterous position as Transport for London, which had to ban adverts showing butter and jam last year and even had to censor its own promotional literature to remove images of popcorn and cream.
The prohibition on positioning a vast range of food products at the entrance and checkout of shops will become farcical in premises smaller than a supermarket. The requirement for calorie labelling in food outside the home will be impossible for most pubs and restaurants to comply with. Making the legislation even halfway workable will require countless exemptions, carve-outs and U-turns (which the ‘public health’ lobby will condemn as ‘loopholes’). It’s a minefield, but it’s the government’s problem now.
None of this will have any impact on obesity, of course, just as the 2008 ban on ‘junk food’ advertising during children’s programmes had no impact on childhood obesity. In the world of ‘public health’, you are considered terribly gauche if you expect anti-obesity policies to actually reduce the rate of obesity. As happened after the introduction of the sugar tax – which also achieved bugger all – we will soon be told that Boris’s extensive range of interventions were ‘a good start’ but that much more needs to be done to tackle the ‘epidemic’ of childhood obesity (an epidemic that only exists on paper).
If Johnson thinks that it is worth alienating his natural supporters to appease left-wing nanny statists, he is in for a shock. These people cannot be appeased. Whatever he announces next week will be denounced as too little, too late. Even if he capitulates to every demand from Action on Sugar, the activists will return with a new set of ultimatums before the day is out. The shrieking will be as loud as ever. But that, too, is his problem now.