This week CapX is republishing some of our favourite articles of the year. This piece first appeared on May 18.
Five years ago, the nation’s favourite culinary millionaire, Jamie Oliver, bemoaned the manner in which poor Britons were happy to spend money on a “massive fucking TV” but still choose to eat “chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers”.
Perhaps this is because, as Oliver’s own website informs us, “Without question, the humble fried potato, the chip, is a gastronomic phenomenon in itself. The ability potatoes have to get mega crispy” – well done them! – “on the outside and super-fluffy in the middle when cooked is so good. Skinny and shoestring fries are delicious, but a proper fat handcut chip is something else.” Sure, “it’s just a shame that they’re not very good for you” but, hey, “like a good old cake, life wouldn’t be the same without them”.
Just as well, then, that Oliver boasts, “I’m not judgemental” even though he finds it “quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty” because some things just don’t “weigh up”. Something makes me believe, though, that given a choice between a TV and an aubergine, the massive fucking TV is going to win.
Oliver’s tireless hectoring has scarcely diminished in the years since. Five years ago he deplored the British people’s disinclination to live on an Italian peasant’s diet; now he campaigns for the sugar tax to be extended, for bans on the advertising of unhealthy food, and for an end to supermarket multi-buy deals that save consumers money at, we are supposed to assume, the expense of their waistlines.
Obesity, we are again told, is the scourge of the age. And because this is a public health issue and because the NHS is funded almost entirely through taxation this means it is every busybody’s issue. This week Oliver received the endorsement of Nicola Sturgeon – though I suppose it could have been the other way round – when the Scottish First Minister announced that her government intended to push through Oliver-friendly measures that would, for instance, outlaw two-for-one deals for supermarket pizzas. In the absence of such treats, let them eat kale.
But then the poor always appal the rich. As so often, George Orwell got to the nub of the matter. The “basis” of the ordinary working-man’s “appalling diet”, he observed in “The Road to Wigan Pier”, is “white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes.” It might indeed be better if they spent more money “on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread” but “no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing”. Moreover, “the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t”.
And for good reason. When you are unemployed, or even when you are in employment but poor or struggling, which is to say, as Orwell put it, “when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to east dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips. Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea.”
The times may change; human nature does not. This is something observed by James Bloodworth in his admirable new, Orwell-inspired, book Hired. Bloodworth spent six months working in the grimier echelons of the gig economy, discovering in the process, that long days trudging for miles through an Amazon warehouse ruined his diet. It wasn’t that he could not afford to purchase fresh food – at least not quite – but that “the need to offset the physical and emotional drain of manual work” ensured that “fags, booze and junk food are some of the few pleasures left to you”.
As Bloodworth writes with controlled but justified fury: “A wretched and miserable job does not appal the middle classes so much as the behaviour exhibited by a person who does such a job” and “never mind that it is the dismal work that has often driven them to such behaviour in the first place”. When life is a drudge, and you are living pay check to pay check – and at the mercy of incompetent agencies that will, sure as eggs is eggs, screw-up your payslip anyway – a Big Mac and a can of cheap lager offers a measure of relief no amount of broccoli can match.
Doubling the price of supermarket pizzas does not improve the lives of people living on or below the minimum wage. It merely forces them to spend more of their already meagre resources on the basic necessities of life and it does so purely to satisfy wealthy scolds revolted by the ghastly behaviour of their economic – and social – inferiors.
The revolting people here are not the poor but, rather, those who consider them revolting and, in the name of improvement, demand they sacrifice some of the few and fleeting pleasures available to them. Not so they will lead happier lives but so their middle-class superiors may feel better about themselves.
In a better-ordered society the spectacle of millionaires and affluent politicians conspiring to scold the poor for the fecklessness with which they – allegedly – lead their live would be considered vile, not socially virtuous or useful. Class, of course, remains one of Britain’s original sins. It is easier to revile the poor than to provide them with better jobs and better pay. Poverty is the sin, not sugar or fat or salt. Better lives are the answer, not better diets.
Meanwhile, it is worth examining what the state does in areas of life that genuinely are its responsibility. A typical primary school menu features, each week, delights such as pizza, turkey burgers, fish fingers, macaroni cheese, and so on. In a nod to fashion, a Quorn cottage pie may be available but seems less likely to enthuse children than the alternative provision of sausage rolls. Potatoes, whether chipped or mashed or boiled to death, are available every day.
This is not necessarily a desperate diet, though nor is it an interesting or imaginative one. Even so, it compares poorly to a typical menu in a typical French primary school where sole meunière, roast veal, and salmon lasagna may feature and salad is not a daily “option” but a core, indeed compulsory, component of every meal. All this for much the same cost as the meals in British schools.
Couple this with the deplorable, indeed desperate, state of physical education in British schools and you begin to understand why concepts such as the “daily mile” first pioneered by a primary school in Dunblane, have become increasingly popular. That reflects a system in which children typically receive no more than two hours of PE a week. At one primary school I know of, events at the annual sports day are replaced by “heel to toe” walking contests if there has been recent rain, for fear that running on damp grass might result in pupils slipping. All this seems as likely to contribute to unhealthy children as anything bought by their parents.
I mention this because if politicians were really interested in childhood obesity they would insist upon better school meals and proper amounts of exercise in the school curriculum. Their disinclination to address these issues leaves one with little option but to regard their concentration upon celebrity-endorsed punishment-dieting as little more than exercises in headline-grabbing grandstanding. It would be simpler, and plausibly more honest, just to give the poor ration cards.