It is not often that one’s rantings and ravings get confirmed. But two weeks ago the Scottish Government launched an “anti-obesity strategy” which in its aims, objectives and potential implications could be a virtual textbook example of what I have called pseudo-benign liberal totalism or PBLT (see posts Liberal-Fascism, Nonsense or the Way We Are Now Parts 1- 3). Almost every constituent part of what I have argued goes to make up PBLT is encapsulated in this ‘strategy’; and with it too, all the major faults.
According to the Scottish Government, obesity currently costs Scotland over £457 million per year. A stroll down any of Scotland’s main high streets will give graphic proof that a fair number of our fellow citizens are overweight and that brings in its train a whole range of problems associated with poor health including high blood pressure and a greater chance of contracting diabetes.
There is every indication that levels of obesity have increased over the past few decades in Scotland and one of the major reasons for this is this country’s dreadful diet epitomised by such ‘delicacies’ as fried Mars Bars, black pudding suppers, Irn Bru and consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol. Fruit and veg have been absent many a Scot person’s shopping lists for a long time. Add to this a strong aversion to anything resembling exercise and a propensity to sit around watching TV, DVDs or playing computer games all day long and you have the classic roly-poly overweight couch potato Scot.
In response the Scottish government has unveiled a document ‘Preventing Overweight and Obesity in Scotland – A Route Map Towards Healthy Weight’. The document outlines a number of initiatives aimed at curbing the trend to greater levels of obesity. Amongst these will be “Working with businesses to encourage their employees to eat healthily and be more active” and the one that grabbed most attention, “Working with retailers, producers and the food industry to control exposure to, demand for and consumption of high calorie foods and drinks”
Employers already have a massive amount of law relating to employment and health and safety as well as a massive list of rules, regulations and procedures to adhere to. Now as well as ensuring the safety of their employees and attempting to enforce a working environment denuded of the slightest scintilla of discrimination, both overt and covert, direct and indirect, which means effectively having to police employee’s behaviour, they will now be asked to encourage their workforce to change their diet and eat healthily. Long gone are the days when turning up for work meant doing the tasks you were hired for, getting your pay at the end of the week or month and back to the privacy of your home, family and friends. The workplace as with so many other organisational settings such as schools and colleges is increasingly being seen as the place where desired social norms and social policy can be enforced and monitored.
As for trying to control demand for and consumption of high calorie food including insuring “food portions better reflect consumers’ energy needs”, this has rightly come in for a considerable amount of ridicule best summed up by David Maguire, chief executive of the Glasgow Restaurateurs’ Association whose response to this was:
“We regard this proposal as impractical, unenforceable nonsense which gives no credit to an individual’s ability to make an informed choice about what they eat or where they choose to dine out,” (Glasgow Evening Times 22nd February 2010.)
Hear, hear! This is PBLT at its worst: a serious attempt to micro-manage people’s dining habits in the cause of a greater good.
We have here all the classic ingredients (no pun intended) of a grand totalising solution aimed at substantially reducing, if not eliminating, obesity from the land based on a top-down ‘managerial approach’ that places the emphasis heavily on people and individual responsibility. And how exactly will this big policy aim be achieved? Well, a series of national events will be held in the spring at which “organisations from all sectors” will be invited to be “involved” in how the proposals outlined in the document are to be taken forward. Following that a “joint governmental leadership group” will “endorse a plan of action” and monitor progress in achieving the strategy.
In other words, there’ll be a series of talking shops where the veneer of consultation and participation will be branded about followed by a government appointed steering group that will in fact seek to assess progress on decisions and outcomes already reached elsewhere by civil servants, sundry advisors and government ministers. The chances of this radically altering Scotland’s obesity problems are miniscule; definitely a case of micro means to attempt to achieve macro solutions.
But even on this basis, as already highlighted, some of the proposals are ludicrous. Take the notion of portion control. How the hell would this be enforced short of requiring a battery of inspectors and an entire new regulatory structure? You could imagine a new body being set up: ORS (Obesity Reduction Scotland) that would have at its command an entire bevy of inspectors able to go into restaurants, fast food shops, pubs, clubs and any other place dispensing food and enforce portion control on both owners and diners. ORS could be responsible for setting up and even administering OATs (Obesity Action Teams) based on health board or local authority areas (8 or 32 depending on which chosen) that would be responsible for bringing together relevant professionals from health, social work, the restaurant trade etc in a spirit of “partnership working”. Each OAT would have a national plan with milestones and targets for its area which would adhere to a set of national targets set up by ORS.
ORS could also have a role in workplace monitoring of employee’s compliance with healthy eating habits. We could even have community based Anti-Obesity Observance Compliance squads to snoop on people’s personal habits: “That’s the third packet of cheese and onion you’ve had today pal, you’re nicked!” Of course ORS might well clash with other agencies such as the Food Standards Agencies and a veritable bureaucratic turf war could ensue as different agencies compete for the same work or try to expand in each other’s domain.
At the risk of labouring the point some of the recommendations made by this report, if taken seriously and acted upon will inevitably lead to yet another layer of inspection, regulation and bureaucracy which in turn is guaranteed to find yet more areas to regulate and inspect and, yes, to legislate upon, with little if any real impact upon the problem at hand.
And, of course where would we be without the contradictions or bi-polarity i.e. tying to do two contradictory things simultaneously. Two weeks after the launch of the anti-obesity strategy the very same Scottish government began a campaign to highlight Scotland’s excellent range of food and drink, including of course haggis and whiskey; which are not exactly renowned for being staples of a healthy diet.
Obesity, of course, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We are surrounded by a plethora of fast-food outlets; and there seems to be an inverse proportion between the level of deprivation in a community and the numbers of fast food outlets selling high processed, salty, fast food. Take a walk down a main shopping street in any of Glasgow’s poorest areas and note how the shops seem to consist of a parade of: fish/chips/curry takeaways, off-sales, pubs, tanning salons, criminal lawyers’ offices, newsagents selling fags and sometimes booze (one notorious example of the latter in Glasgow’s east-end revels in the name News and Booze) as well as pharmacies. Entire communities, except for some local initiatives, are bereft of any outlet for selling fruit and vegetables or any other fresh, healthy produce. In other words, these streets and the shops in them denote lifestyle and not a healthy one at that.
Of course a strong commitment to the free market and free trade evinced by successive governments in Westminster and in compliance with European free trade laws has meant the ability to restrict or regulate this profusion of outlets purveying undesired wares is very limited.
But undesired and unhealthy lifestyles are not the preserve of the poor and downtrodden by any means. Our 24 hour rushed lifestyle, the easy accessibility of convenience foods allied to the fact that relatively few families now sit down together over a properly cooked meal because nobody has the time to prepare them have all contributed to this situation where we shove highly processed foods down our throats.
These factors stem from wider socio-economic, technological, demographic, cultural and political forces which have fundamentally altered the way we live, including our diets, over the past few decades. But the point is most of these changes have been positively encouraged, or at least not resisted by governments. With food and diet as with so many other things in contemporary society, governments, social policy makers and other decision makers are sending out mixed, contradictory messages: a study in bi-polarity graphically symbolised by allowing McDonalds and Coca Cola to advertise in and sponsor schools.
But let’s not forgot, for all the concern about obesity being the “ticking time-bomb” most people now are well fed and nourished and lead lives of incomparable luxury compared to even their immediate ancestors. How much misery, degradation and suffering, stunted growth and lives have been the result of meagre diets and malnutrition as a consequence of widespread poverty for the vast majority of human beings throughout human history until now? Obesity is a by-product of affluence.
The Scottish Government’s intended policy on obesity is symptomatic of an altruistic desire to change people’s lives to a more healthy one wrapped up in a grand totalising solution to radically reduce obesity which rapidly flips over to ludicrous, meddlesome proposals which if even mildly attempted would result in a bureaucratic guddle of comic book proportions, whose effect if any is completely neutered by contrary influences which are also largely promoted and supported by government.
Gross obesity is both unhealthy and, yes, unattractive and we should be taking pragmatic, feasible steps to deal with it. But the puritan obsession with people’s lifestyles, including what they eat and trying to change them is indicative of a managerial, ‘top-down’ approach to social policy, basically a control agenda which is at the crux of pseudo benign liberal totalism.
Now, anybody fancy a curry?