City AM: From junk food ad bans to new smoking bans, the UK is in an age of state intervention

This article was first published in City AM.

We have slipped into a new age of state intervention. Even after a year of unprecedented interference in our everyday lives, attacks on personal freedoms are emerging from every quarter. Take gambling, for example. The government’s review of the Gambling Act looks set to introduce new spend limits to dictate what people can and can’t do with their money, with some calling for it to be illegal to spend more than £100 per month.

Elsewhere in gratuitous growth of the state in the name of public health, the government has finally signed off on its plan to ban advertising for what it deems “junk food” in an effort to curb obesity, albeit a slightly watered-down version which promises not to criminalise family-run bakeries posting pictures of cakes on Instagram.

There is no disagreement whatsoever in the science on this. All the evidence demonstrates that it will do much more harm than good. The government’s own in-house analysis of the policy concluded that it will remove a grand total of 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day – roughly half a Smartie.

Nonetheless, keeping with the theme of following sentiment rather than science in public health, the junk food ad ban will sit alongside ineffective and punitive sugar taxes as part of the government’s wildly ill-informed interventionist obesity strategy – and its loudest critics are those suggesting it doesn’t go far enough.

Meanwhile, local authorities are queuing up to be the first to become “smoke-free: by imposing new restrictions on when and where people can smoke, starting with banning smoking for outside hospitality. These restrictions will culminate in the department of health’s plan to make England “smoke-free” by 2030.

That strategy was pioneered by Matt Hancock – it remains to be seen whether his successor, Sajid Javid, will continue down this road. Given the overall direction of the government, it would be extraordinary if he didn’t.

The World Health Organisation has declared war on vaping, and our government is listening – despite it being by far the most effective item in the tobacco harm reduction toolkit, given its remarkable record of doubling a smoker’s chance of quitting and weaning more people off cigarettes than any other method.

As if that wasn’t enough, the government is also gearing up to meddle unnecessarily with the big tech giants, with catastrophic consequences for freedom of expression online. The ominous new quango for tech regulation, the Digital Markets Unit, is gearing up for a fight. The government is also sticking by its online safety bill, despite the fact that it is a “censor’s charter” and will be “catastrophic” for freedom of speech, as David Davis put it.

Politicians seem fixated on changing people’s behaviours by following the doomed thirty-year-old playbook for tobacco regulation, failing to consider if it is still fit for purpose. After three decades, nanny statists, tax enthusiasts and red tape fetishists are still pushing the same disastrous policies, from outright bans on advertising to gratuitous health warnings on food packaging, and from excessive lifestyle taxes to enforced calorie counts on pints in pubs, punishing those who can least afford it and having little to no effect on public health outcomes.

What is even more alarming is much of this policy is being pushed by Boris Johnson, a conservative Prime Minister who fought vehemently against the tyranny of the European Union’s interventionist approach.

We desperately need backbench Tory MPs to stand up against the consensus forming between the government and opposition that rampant interventionism is the best way forward.

The Conservative benches have already given rise to many such rebellions. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group single-handedly ended Theresa May’s premiership and ensured the full delivery of Brexit. Since then, similar groups have appeared to campaign on Covid restrictions, China and the interests of red wall voters.

We now badly need another to push back against the hand of the big government. We need a Civil Liberties Research Group.