A government minister in full hectoring mode is rarely a pretty
sight. Melanie Johnson, the public health minister, may have more
about her than most of those who have donned the mantle of the
nation’s “nanny” but I confess to feeling a terrible temptation to
reach for a packet of crisps and a glass of wine every time she
tut-tuts about our lifestyles.
Her first intervention as MPs returned to Westminster was the
launch of some pilot projects in schools to improve children’s
diets. Her second was a short debate on the iniquities of marketing
alcoholic drinks. Both confirmed that the words “obesity” and
“binge-drinking” will be a daily feature of this year’s political
In December, Derek Wanless’s report, Securing Good Health for the
Whole Population, made chilling reading. This was preceded by the
National Audit Office’s equally depressing report, which predicted
that obesity will cost the nation £3.6bn a year by 2010.
Meanwhile, the government is about to launch its alcohol
harm-reduction strategy. From early intelligence, this looks like
delivering one of those classic Daily Mail front pages, full of
talk of “time bombs”, death and destruction, all no doubt
accompanied by a photograph of dishevelled, scantily clad young
girls considerably the worse for wear.
These problems certainly exist. But ministerial scare tactics
rarely succeed in changing people’s lifestyles.
My own (Conservative) party and the Lib Dems face the challenge of
avoiding this particular bandwagon and focusing instead on
practical policies, which provide safe and clean outdoor spaces and
on directing resources to those who are ill or afflicted in some
way through no fault of their own.
A visitor to my council surgery recently complained that
politicians made her feel guilty for not making her teenage
children take more exercise. “But how can I send my two off to the
park if they’re likely to be offered drugs or mugged – or worse.
And who would be blamed if that happened?”, she complained.
What is even more perverse about this ministerial tendency to try
to dictate the nation’s behaviour is the implication that
individuals cannot be expected or trusted to take responsibility
for their own actions. Of course, professionals can influence
individuals or specific groups who are harming themselves and those
around them. And, naturally, politicians should be working for
environments which encourage healthy lifestyles.
But I am not convinced that one inch is lost off a waistline, or
any fewer harmful substances ingested, because a minister
pontificates about the dangers.
Sheila Gunn is a political commentator and a councillor in
the London Borough of Camden.