‘nanny state’: meanings and origins

From the noun nanny in the sense of a woman employed to look after a child in its own home, the term nanny state denotes:
– the government or its policies viewed as overprotective or as interfering unduly with personal choice;
– a state characterised as having such a government.

This term seems to have been coined on separate occasions by at least two persons, independently from one another.

It was first coined by the U.S. journalist Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961) in her column On the Record, published in several U.S. and Canadian newspapers in June 1952—for example in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) of Friday the 6th:

Cairo (Via Air Mail)—[…] The empires, especially the British, have been to the “native” not only exploiters (and they have been), but they have made the word “native” contemptible when, for themselves, it is a term of pride.
But the empires have also filled the role of headmaster, or Nanny-governess. (It is an amusing notion that comes to me that, with the retreat of empire, Britons are turning Britain itself into a Nanny-state, perhaps out of long habit in persuading or coercing natives to do what is good for them.)

The term nanny state was recoined (and used on several occasions) by the British Conservative Party politician Iain Macleod (1913-1970), then Editor of The Spectator, in his column Spectator’s Notebook, published (under the pseudonym of ‘Quoodle’) in The Spectator (London: The Spectator Ltd):

– of Friday 12th February 1965:

Bad Ban
I view with some concern the Government’s decision to prohibit cigarette advertising on commercial television, coupled with a vague threat on future action against other media. Personally I regard the proof of a causal link between heavy cigarette-smoking and the incidence of lung cancer as overwhelming. But so is the link between heavy drinking and death on the road. And perhaps between gambling and bankruptcy. Or the presentation of violence and crime itself.
The line is a difficult one to draw, and the argument in this case is hopelessly confused because of the Government’s strange moral objection to commercial television, and even to the whole profession of advertising. How absurd it is to announce a prohibition for commercial television while British Railways, BOAC, BEA and London Passenger Transport happily go on advertising cigarette smoking! This new victory for the Nanny State represents the wrong approach. It is certainly the duty of ministers to make sure that there is full knowledge of the risks thought to be involved in heavy cigarette-smoking—and this duty was discharged by Conservative Ministers of Health and Education. If this is done, the decision to smoke or not is for the individual, and it should be left to him.

– of Friday 26th February 1965:

Nanny’s Last Fling
The London County Council is dying, but the spirit of the Nanny State fights on. Next Tuesday the LCC is to consider a recommendation that the Home Secretary be invited to introduce legislation so that smoking could be banned in cinemas licensed by the LCC, in view of the failure of negotiations to secure a ban by agreement. The best comment on this ludicrous piece of fussiness is the deadpan addendum to be moved by the Tories on the LCC. They will propose that smoking be also prohibited on the principal floor of County Hall. And the Socialist majority could set an example by stopping the sale of cigarettes in restaurants in County Hall.

– of Friday 3rd December 1965:

70 m.p.h.
In my occasional appearances as a poor man’s Peter Simple I fire salvos in the direction of what I call the Nanny State. Mr. Fraser is, although you wouldn’t think it, the Minister of Transport. He has come forward with the perishing nonsense of a plan for a 70 m.p.h. speed limit even on motorways. Doesn’t he know that for many cars built today 70-80 m.p.h. is the normal safe cruising speed? Doesn’t he realise that his new restriction is as unenforceable as it is undesirable? And why doesn’t he follow his own logic and (in order to cut out accidents altogether) go back to where we started with a 5 m.p.h. limit and the man with the red flag?
My medal for resistance to Nanny in recent weeks goes to the oil companies who suddenly stiffened their backbones and rejected Mr. Lee’s request to them not to advertise their wares, and so take advantage of the nationalised industries. Mr. Lee, although you wouldn’t think it, is Minister of Power.

One David Torvell mentioned nanny state with implicit reference to Iain Macleod in a letter published in The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Monday 15th March 1965:

Sir,—As one of Mr. James Dance’s constituents, I have recently written to him expressing disquiet at his attempts to bring pressure to bear on the broadcasting authorities.
I am very sorry to see him apparently placing himself at the head of a new Puritanism, because I think that he is prescribing a dangerous cure for a trivial malady.
A colleague of Mr. Dance’s * has recently coined the phrase the “Nanny State.” It represents a real possibility, which I sincerely hope he will fight rather than foster.

(* The British Conservative Party politician James Dance (1907-1971) was Member of Parliament for Bromsgrove, in Worcestershire, England, from 1955 until his death. Iain Macleod was Member of Parliament for Enfield West, in Middlesex then Greater London, England, from 1950 to 1970.)

The term then occurs in Y.C.’s want the State to support family planning, published in the Middlesex County Times and West Middlesex Gazette (Ealing, Greater London, England) of Friday 13th May 1966:

Hanwell Young Conservatives on Saturday forsook their usual venue at the Red Lion Inn, Hanwell, for a trip to Eastcote for a debating evening with Eastcote Young Conservatives, at their headquarters.
Main motion was “That this House, believing in the eventual necessity for a national population policy, calls for assistance in family planning as a social service, and for abortion as a right.”
Opposing the motion on behalf of Hanwell Young Conservatives was their political officer, Malcolm Kennedy, seconded by John Hall.
Mr. Kennedy said that the motion was encouraging a “Nanny State”, where everything was planned for the population by the State. One must draw the line between the right of the individual and State control.

In Menace Of The Watchdogs, published in London Life (London, England) of Saturday 15th October 1966, Angela Ince denounced:

the whole irritating, complacent, smug, Nanny-knows-best, eat-up-your-nice-spinach-or-your-hair-won’t-curl of today’s Nanny State.

More generally, in this article, Angela Ince used nanny several times to denote a person, institution, etc., considered to be unduly protective or interfering; this is the beginning of the article:

There are far too many nannies about, that’s what. It’s getting so that the British Housewife can hardly buy a lettuce, shop for a vacuum cleaner, pick up the telephone or watch television without some interfering body tutting at her extravagance, worrying about her moral tone, or insisting that Nanny Knows Best.
This country is full of associations anxiously looking after my rights, and while it’s very kind of them, I’m beginning to wish they’d treat me more as a reasonable adult and less like a wayward child who’s only just mastered the fact that there are 12 pennies in a shilling. I’d like to be left in peace to lead my own life my own way, and if it’s an improvident and extravagant way, then that’s my business.

Angela Ince then wrote, for example, that “High in the Nanny Hierarchy is Nanny Consumers’ Association, who publishes the monthly magazine Which?”, and that “Most recent entrant to membership of the Nannies’ Club is Nanny Durham Rural District Council’s Housing Committee”.

In the following from The Listener (London: British Broadcasting Corporation) of Thursday 9th July 1959, the noun nanny had already been used to denote a person, institution, etc., considered to be unduly protective or interfering:

‘An extraordinarily powerful old bureaucratic nanny’, said Christopher Serpell, B.B.C. correspondent in Washington, ‘goes stalking up and down the United States, pouncing on people who are telling commercial fibs, or selling to the public things which are not fit to eat or drink. This authority is the Food and Drug Administration of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.’

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