After 13 years of New Labour nannying – all that non-stop hectoring about what we should eat, how we should raise our kids, where and with whom and how often we should have sex – many people breathed a sigh of relief when the Lib-Cons seized Downing Street in May last year. This rosy-cheeked government promised to elbow aside nanny and replace her with a renewed respect for individual autonomy. It sounded wonderful.
But they’ve done nothing of the sort. Instead David Cameron and his yellow sidekicks have managed the remarkable feat of replacing nanny with an even more freedom-loathing, brain-invading political creed: nudging. Their desire to nudge the populace towards good behaviour makes New Labour’s bossy prudery seem almost liberal and level-headed in comparison.
This year is likely to be the Year of the Nudge, the year of politicians using all kinds of Derren Brown-style mind-trickery to try to coax or cajole or hoodwink the people of Britain into adopting a state-approved lifestyle – that is, a healthy-eating, bike-riding, beer-avoiding lifestyle, which will guarantee you instant access (should you want it) to the Cleggite set of former prefects and perfect bores who never abuse their bodies with anything more toxic than a weekly glass of chardonnay.
The Lib-Cons have a Behavioural Insight Team inside Downing Street. Inspired and advised by Richard Thaler, co-author of the phenomenally successful book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Wealth, Health and Happiness, the team aims not only to change people’s behaviour but to “change the way citizens think” (to quote Clegg himself).
As yesterday’s Independent reported, it will use various “mental techniques” and “psychological tricks” to “alter our behaviour” – for example, by offering less well-off shoppers health vouchers to encourage them to buy Hellman’s Light Mayonnaise rather than a King Sized Mars Bar; or by changing our local community infrastructure to make it harder to drive a car and easier to ride a bike; or by having cashpoint machines ask us: “Would you like to make a donation to a charity?”
In the past, the revelation that there was a Behavioural Insight Team at the heart of government would have set alarm bells ringing. It would have brought to mind the worst excesses of the Soviet Union (which treated political dissent as a mental illness to be corrected) or even of Orwell’s nightmare world in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In that novel, O’Brien, the torturer of Winston Smith, says: “We create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.” Cameron and Clegg have merely added a bit of PC spit-and-polish to this authoritarian view of men’s minds as putty for the elite to play around with.
The whole nudge thing is spectacularly Orwellian. A Cabinet Office document says that because the masses make decisions “outside of conscious awareness” (ie. we’re a bit thick), the government should aim to become our “surrogate willpower”, making decisions on our behalf. In short, the authorities should colonise our minds and do our thinking for us. It is pure Big Brother. The state-approved lifestyle is no life at all.