Nanny Knows Best in the Country of Her Birth

I’ve had a few people refer me to an article in Friday’s National Times, wherein one Ben Jellis – whose qualification is that he’s a lawyer and that he lived in the UK two years – opines that England has gone safety mad. I think he means the United Kingdom. But geographical precision aside, is this guy for real? The article even says that it took him six month to work it out!

The United Kingdom is known internationally as being ruled by OH & S despots, and certainly all Britons recognise this. How could anyone there, even a tourist of only a few days, not realise, as their every move is watched and scrutinised via CCTV?

And surely as a visitor to London gazes upon the sea of fluorescent vests on any major intersection they realise they are not in Kansas anymore. The ones that really stand out in the UK these days are those not so brightly attired!

Mind you, Australia is not much better when it comes to high visability! The latest craze sees all bus drivers so dressed. These are the same bus drivers prohibited – by force of a sticker affixed to every driver-side window – from entering the bus by way of said window.

But I digress.

The archetype of Britain’s fixation with health and safety used to be the ominously named Health & Safety Executive. This quango makes Australia’s various Workcover authorities look like like toothless tigers and bastions of libertarian thought and deed. But the new archetype is actually the curious (and tragic) case of Simon Burgess (I have written about it here) which cast a pall of shame across Britain, and rightly so. Burgess drowned in three feet of still water as hundreds of people – among them dozens of police officers, firefighters and paramedics – all refused to assist. The civilians had the excuse that they were not sworn officers, and the sworn officers could not possibly enter such a treacherous body of water on pain of official sanction by – you guessed it – the Health & Safety Executive. “More than my job’s worth…” and all that!

If it took the National Times‘ intrepid correspondent six months of English living to detect some health and safety madness, one wonders how long it took him to link this national obsession with the security arrangements for the Olympic Games. But in any case, he has made an erroneous – even a ridiculous – link.

The Health and Safety Industrial Complex that Jellis decries is one of the more ghastly outcomes of the broader nanny state that exists in Australia, as well as Britain. The nanny state – the term was coined by British MP Iain Macleod in 1965 – is that social and political environment in which personal responsibility is minimized so that the government is able to fulfill its role as a nanny – caring for the every need of those in its charge.

And if only Jellis’ all-seeing eye of CCTV was where the nanny-ing stopped. In one sense I don’t really care if a government agent (or more likely a contracted security guard with a one week course under his belt) watches me on the number 12 bus. The objection to the nanny state is founded on what it precludes, rather than on what it sees.

But security, policing and defence are legitimate functions of the state. Of course, they can be taken too far but a free society needs strong defence and police forces to protect that freedom.

Is positioning anti-aircraft missiles on apartment rooftops going too far? Maybe, but I wouldn’t know.

But the protection of athletes, tourists and citizens in London is exactly what the government should be focusing on in the lead-up to the Olympics this July and August, and within reason, some erring on the side of caution is appropriate and understandable.

In any case, Jellis makes a serious category mistake to conflate defence/police/security and OH & S. The former is what the state must be involved in because, on an individual level, we cannot. The latter is about personal responsibility, personal choice, individual decisions and individual freedom, things which the British sacrificed a long time ago, and which, sadly, it takes about two days to realise.

This article first published in On Line Opinion on 8 May 2012.