A statement by Labour Health spokesman Andy Burnham to the effect that a ban on high-sugar and high-fat foods, including breakfast cereals like Frosties, should be investigated, has led to a tide of ridicule across cyberspace, along with some fairly predictable responses about the nanny state and political correctness gone mad. It’s unfortunate that what is a serious point about obesity has been picked up in this way, but this is the latest in a series of pronouncements by mainstream politicians about public health that, in my view, demonstrates many of the failings of mainstream political debate. Earlier this week, we heard Tory Westminster Council publishing a discussion document that raised the prospect of obese people being denied access to benefits should they not be able to demonstrate that they are taking regular exercise.
Of course nutrition is a problem – Anglo-Saxon capitalism has created the first society in history in which obesity is a mark of poverty. And there are enormous economic and ecological implicartions of a food industry which is based on bulk rearing of livestock, and the export of mechanically-produced convenience foods around the world. There is a serious debate to be had here about this growing public health problem – but mainstream politicians today seem incapable of having it, not least since it will involve a critique of capitalism.
But there is more, far more, than this. George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, described how sweet, unnourishing food could become a palliative for the poor and miserable – in the face of nutritional advice from the more privileged:
Now compare this list with the unemployed miner’s budget that I gave earlier. The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes–an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And 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. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat 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 all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.
To the extent that the mainstream English left understands Orwell at all, it is as the post-war critic of communism rather than the pre-war revolutionary socialist. But, amidst all the handwringing, the political mainstream – comprising a political class that is increasingly small, privileged and homogenous – might want to consider why sugary nutrition-lite is so attractive, and ask itself (perhaps while enjoying that second gin-and-tonic) why it is so incapable of understanding that poverty is hard, getting harder, and that people will inevitably seek palliatives. And they might just ask whether they might be better served by acquiring the empathy to understand that, and the determination to raise the condition of the poorest and vulnerable rather than demonising them.