Stuart Maconie on the Virtues of the Nanny State

Posted on 27th February 2020 by Mark Skinner

Acclaimed journalist, broadcaster and author of The Nanny State Made Me, Stuart Maconie is an unapologetic advocate of the post-war Welfare State that is frequently derided as the 'nanny state' in numerous op-ed pieces and newspaper columns. In this exclusive essay he spells out exactly why he feels it is an institution to be cherished.

There is, as the scientists in the field tell us constantly these days, a difference between climate and weather. Just because this winter has been cold, it doesn’t mean global warming isn’t happening. An unseasonably cold month here doesn’t mean the seas aren’t rising somewhere else. And so it is with history and politics. Anyone who writes any kind of ‘political’ book these days, even one that is as much a memoir and a personal history as my own new book, risks being left looking foolish by the sheer, bewildering pace of the political weather, what Harold MacMillan called ‘events, dear boy, events’. When I began The Nanny State Made Me, not that long ago, we were still in the European Union, Theresa May was Prime Minister, and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had just given her a terrible and unexpected fright at the Ballot Box. As I finished it, an old Etonian called Boris - a character that satirists would not have dared invent for fear of seeming too cliched and absurd - had just inflicted the biggest defeat on Labour since the 1930s.

But this is weather. And my new book is about this deep weather, the climatic change that began in the late 1970s and has depressed us, to a greater or lesser degree. The Nanny State Made Me and is an attempt to refute the bankrupt, empty narrative that we’ve been sold – literally sold – for forty years; that the state should be rolled back and that everything from the hospitals we are born and die in, to the water we drink to the houses we hope to live in, to the jails we hope to avoid is best left to the private businessman- and best done for the profit of shareholders. Bluntly, I think this has been the ruination of Britain, and a finger in the wind says that a change is overdue.

I am a child of the state. You may be too. I spent my formative years housed, educated, healed, entertained even, by offices of the state not the cutthroat economics of profit.  T S Eliot’s J Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons. For me, it was the once-free milk and fillings, the patchy putting greens and public libraries, the forbidding nit nurses and dour dole offices. None of these things sound particularly glamorous or sexy. Indeed, they’re not. They are not aspirational, they are not ‘bling’. They do not gleam like an unboxed Iphone: they clatter with coins like an old stinky phone box. They do not purr like a Maserati, they wheeze like a British Leyland bus. This was the world of the verruca bath, not the Love Island jacuzzi. It was simpler and duller, run by bland civil servants rather than shiny-suited entrepreneurs. But it worked.

We grew up, some of us at least and probably once most of us, in the nanny state. We lived in its compact, sturdy little houses and educated in its solid, unshowy but decent schools. Our minds were opened and filled by its silent and magical libraries, its draughty museums and echoing galleries, places of wonder travelled to on buses and trains that were unsexy and asthmatic but ran on time and went regularly to all the places we wanted to go. We ran and laughed and grew healthy and fit and were hale and naughty and happy in its little local parks (and huge national ones) and its swimming baths reeking of chlorine, its muddied sports fields, on its putting greens and the cracked, weed-choked asphalt of its municipal tennis courts.  But with the coming of Thatcher and a new kind of hard and right wing thinking, we moved from being a country with a sense of self and concerned largely with its own people and their welfare in to, as the journalist Andy Beckett has put it, ‘something else…outward looking, materialistic, colourful, lonely and cruel’.

‘Nanny state’ has become a glib dismissal for all that is seen to be bad, weak and misguided about once-proud Britain. It is the blowhard columnists’ friend, blamed for everything from teenage pregnancies to the erratic form of our fast bowlers. It has become a byword for failure. But I want to tell you that it was the spirit of our finest hour, the backbone of our post-war greatness, our brief new Elizabethan heyday, our 1960s cultural domination of the globe. Between the end of the Second World War and the early 1980s, Britain produced some of the greatest art, science, literature, pop music, comedy, film and sporting achievements the world has ever seen. These things were achieved by generations of children of the state.  Having defeated global fascism, a ruined country rebuilt itself from rubble - thanks to the most progressive government in our history and the talents of its children, raised outside of the establishment and the elite on a diet of free school milk and all the other benefits of a forward-looking state with a commitment to the public good, not the private profit.

My book is my story and possibly your story, but it is also the story of modern Britain. How we, almost alone among the grown-up countries of Europe embraced a way of thinking that was fundamentalist as any Maoist or Soviet thinking and about as much fun. The people who complain about the nanny state are the people who had nannies. Our story is different, and our side of it is worth telling.


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