In praise of the nanny state

July 9, 2008 at 1:44 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 1 Comment

I don’t suppose I need to repeat the refrain about this government’s authoritarianism. In its eleven years in power, Labour’s base instinct has been to legislate its way out of every problem, every bad headline and every moral panic. We’ve seen a criminal justice policy dictated more by Paul Dacre than common sense and we’ve seen public health campaigns that achieve Cromwellian standards of piety. Such is the level of disgust with the overbearing Big Brother State, we’re frequently seeing liberals, libertarians and some left-wingers converge onto a common ground they rarely share.

And then this week the government went and threw a fork in the road.

Whilst it was under-reported by a media on the trail of new by-election blood, the Department for Children, Schools and Families announced its initial findings about the piloted Family Nurse Partnership programme. The details of this scheme are enough to make a civil libertarian blush with disgust: state-sponsored snoopers invading the homes of new parents and teaching them how to look after their own kids. If anything symbolises the nanny state Britain’s become then it’s this, right?

Well, yes. Except, it might just be working. The Family Nurse partnership is inspired by similar programmes in the United States which have found that a child’s development happens from a very early age, and if a kid’s going to receive a decent chance in life, they need good parenting from day one. In deprived communities without much education or skills and blighted by crime, drugs and family breakdown, a child’s life chances are severely hampered, and this tends to create a self-perpetuating cycle. The idea of the family nurse partnership is to break this cycle by giving new mothers and fathers all the advice and opportunities they need to give their own children the care they might not have received themselves.

Some of the successes & short-term benefits of the scheme can be found in here, but it’s the long-term benefits that might be most promising. Could such a scheme make a positive effect on family breakdown, antisocial behaviour and even crime and a child’s education? It certainly wouldn’t hurt, and as this article points out, trials in the US have shown “the scheme led to improved prenatal health of mother and baby, fewer childhood injuries, fewer subsequent pregnancies and longer breaks between births, increased maternal employment and greater readiness for school.”

The point I want to make here is that good policy can fall anywhere between the two poles of libertarian and authoritarian and only an ideologue would favour or oppose policies according to where they fall on the political compass. Instead, we should ask whether a policy achieves what its creators intended, whether it helps those who need it, whether it does so without infringing civil liberties and whether it justifies the financial cost. Our ultimate aim should be good government, and whilst Labour’s nanny state tendency frequently seems like the exact opposite, on this issue, at least, they might just be getting it right.

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  1. […] life, particularly from a very young age. That was the rationale behind SureStart and the Family Nurse Partnership, and it was patently obvious to anyone who supported them that we wouldn’t really know […]


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