People may have felt uncomfortable with Trevor Phillips’ now infamous “sleepwalking to segregation” speech, but I would suggest that as a nation we are sleepwalking to much more besides.
Whether it’s binge drinking, global warming or becoming the fattest nation in Europe, these crises don’t emerge from nowhere. The inches have crept on as we slept. It’s too easy to point to parents sending their children to school with crisps and fizzy drinks for lunch, or pushing burgers through the railings, as somehow totally responsible for the shame of the position in which we now find ourselves.
What we do well in Britain is a kind of knee-jerk response when worrying research findings start to emerge: it’s been blown out of proportion, we say, or it’s nothing to do with me, or we’re a liberal society so government shouldn’t intervene. The hysteria about the nanny state, nurtured by some tabloids, and even commented on sardonically in advertising, feeds into this state of mind. It becomes unfashionable to suggest that there should be tighter controls on the way products or activities are promoted, or that we should take a stand and proscribe some activities altogether. Front-line workers are condemned as politically correct.
The obesity issue is an example of the interplay of many different causes and responsibilities. Yes, we can act only on what we know at the time, but we have understood the mechanics of diet and lifestyle for quite a while. Sensitivities have meant that, until recently, interventions have been voluntary, educational, and criticised.
All of us need to own our personal responsibilities, but perhaps we also need someone to take charge, to be decisive.
It is possible to turn things round. We no longer allow the pumping out of dirt from Victorian chimneys (though some might argue that we allow worse). The obesity crisis is with us now, but there are others that we are slipping towards, gambling possibly among them. Whether a government with a loosening grip on power will be brave enough to take positive action early on to prevent further crises is an interesting and worrying question. My family describe me as Stalinist and despair of me at times.
Perhaps they have a point.
Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker