BRITAIN’S middle classes have long been obsessed with what the other, poorer, half eats and drinks. Yesterday, MPs on the science committee called on the government to issue new guidance on alcohol consumption, recommending that people have at least two alcohol-free days a week. It’s a bit rich for politicians, who are often found worse-for-wear in one of the five House of Commons bars, to lecture the rest of us on booze – but this advice is not intended for those who enjoy a glass of claret with their weeknight supper. Like plans for a minimum alcohol price, it is all about the “improvement” of lesser – or less well-off – mortals.
The fixation is nothing new. In his 1937 account of life in the northern working-class heartlands, The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell claimed “we may find out in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun”. He believed that processed foods like tinned peas and white sliced bread were to blame for the deterioration in Britain’s physical “stock”. Orwell took his lead from the Victorians, who were fixated with what poorer people ate and drank, and the effect it might have on the way they led their lives.
The idea that one could improve the physical and moral standards of an entire population by controlling its diet used to bounce around with early theories of eugenics. A clutch of writers such as WB Yeats were big proponents of such thinking. While the Nazi eugenics programme sounded the death-knell for that sick science, the fascination with food and drink persists.
Only in recent times have politicians taken up the mantle with such vigour, previously preferring to leave campaigns to charities such as the Rowntree foundation. For most of the twentieth century, MPs were too busy rebuilding the country, or running things such as the railways or coal mines to take any notice.
After Margaret Thatcher privatised huge swathes of national industry, there was much less for government to do. That was fine for a Tory administration that believed in a smaller state, but it posed a big problem for New Labour, which was still at heart an interventionist party. They were too scared to roll back Thatcher’s economic reforms, so they busied themselves with other things instead. Tony Blair satisfied his interventionist inklings by engaging the UK in a series of foreign conflicts; domestic politicians turned their attention to public health.
During the 1997 to 2010 Labour years, more than £350m was spent telling the public to drink less, eat well, exercise more and to practise safe sex. Spending on the poster, television and cinema campaigns rose 30-fold during the party’s time in power. The coalition has cut back on such advertising, but it is still passionate about the issues. David Cameron is at his most animated when speaking out on sexually suggestive pop music videos, or the impact of food adverts on children.
This government, like the last, really thinks it can build a better Britain by going into poorer people’s kitchens and telling them what to eat and drink. Levels of obesity and binge drinking – which soared over the last twenty years or so, during which nannying was rife – suggest it is misguided.
David Crow is City A.M.’s managing editor and head of news.