Putting St Jamie in
the dock – at last
In flambéing Jamie Oliver, the Lib-Con health secretary is striking a blow against a deeply patronising form of politics.
Never mind the much-discussed Great Repeal Bill or the bonfire of the quangos, to my mind the best thing the Liberal-Conservative coalition government has done is its flambéing of Jamie Oliver, the lisping culinary megalomaniac.
Yesterday, in a speech to the British Medical Association (BMA), the Lib-Con health secretary Andrew Lansley argued that campaigns such as Oliver’s healthy school-dinners drive – in which the chef teamed up with New Labour ministers to try to wean schoolkids off Turkey Twizzlers and on to lentil loaf – can come across as ‘constantly lecturing people’ and can be ‘counterproductive’. I’ll drink to that. Possibly unbeknownst even to himself, Lansley has not only given an irritating celebrity chef his just desserts (pun intended), but has also called into question an entire patronising way of doing politics that emerged under New Labour and which Oliver personified.
Lansley, echoing arguments that spiked has been making over the past five years, told the BMA that, like the metaphorical road to hell, Oliver’s healthy-grub initiative might have had good intentions but it had bad consequences. Jamie’s School Dinners started life as a four-part TV series that ran on Channel 4 in February and March 2005, in which Oliver, then struggling with a downturn in his celebrity stock, sought to improve the quality and nutritional standards of the food in one London school (Kidbrooke in Greenwich).
But then the New Labour government got interested, brought Oliver on board, and turned a TV series into a national political campaign to encourage (force) schools to serve up healthy fare on the demented basis that the nation’s kids were turning into fatally fat slobs and that their parents, being thick, could not be trusted to serve them anything at home that did not contain trans-fats or E numbers.
As Lansley pointed out, the campaign backfired. Hundreds of thousands of kids stopped eating school dinners altogether and instead brought in packed lunches. But then schools, like Twizzler-seeking customs officials, started rifling through children’s lunchboxes – because headmasters now believed that ‘we’ve even got to determine what’s in the packed lunches’, as Lansley put it – and so parents stopped giving their kids packed lunches, too, on the eminently understandable grounds that they didn’t want to receive a letter from Mr Knows-Better-Than-You telling them off for giving little Johnny a fun-size Mars bar.
And so lots of children were given money by their parents instead and were encouraged to buy themselves snacks. Being children, they bought chips. Or sausages in batter. Or pork pies. Washed down with cans of Coke. The kind of foods that Oliver set out to slay in the first place, St George-style, because apparently they are Killing People. As Lansley said yesterday of this healthy-eating debacle: ‘If we are constantly lecturing people and trying to tell them what to do, we will actually find that we undermine and are counterproductive in the results that we achieve.’
Lansley is attacking more than an annoying celeb chef – he’s also taking on a backward form of politics that was cooked up and served to a bewildered nation by the New Labour government. The Oliver campaign summed up so much that was wrong with the frequently illiberal and patronising political agendas of the Blair and then Brown regimes. It captured the celebrification of public life, where ministers, lacking the courage of their convictions and any clue about how to shrink the gap between elected politicians and the public, instead pushed celebs to the forefront of national campaigns in the hope that this would make the allegedly celeb-addicted masses take notice.
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It captured the PR-oriented, big issue-allergic attitude of New Labour, where ministers were more interested in scoring some brownie points with the middle classes and the liberal media through getting rid of Turkey Twizzlers in schools than they were in improving educational standards. They became more concerned with what was being put in children’s lunchboxes by their parents than with what was being put in their heads by their teachers.
It also captured the New Labour government’s reliance on fearmongering over facts in its campaign to make us all change our behaviour. The Oliver campaign was built on the utterly unfounded, pseudo-scientific idea that today’s children would die before their parents if they didn’t start eating Oliver-approved Italian-style food instead of the stodgy so-called meat invented by Bernard Matthews. Oliver repeated this shrill, evidence-lite ‘children dying’ shtick in his response to Lansley yesterday – scaremongering disguised once more as ‘science’.
The campaign summed up New Labour’s contempt for ordinary people, too. Let loose to do New Labour’s bidding, to state openly how the government really felt about working-class families, Oliver berated the masses for being ‘scrubbers’, ‘tossers’, ‘white trash’ and ‘arseholes’ who feed their children ‘shit’. He said plainly what ministers normally only say in code. And the campaign also embodied New Labour’s illiberal tendencies: tuckshops were forced to close down (by what some referred to as a ‘tuckshop Taliban’), chips and salt and other nice things were banned in schools, and the lunchbox-monitoring initiative spoke volumes about officialdom’s distrust of parents and its desire always to step in when mum and dad allegedly fail.
Celebrity-fronted, dodgy science-fuelled, fear-injected authoritarianism: that, in essence, is what the Jamie Oliver school-dinners initiative represented. The Lib-Cons deserve congratulations for putting that kind of patronising politics in the dock. Let’s hope they continue to do so, though there are some worrying signs that they won’t – David Cameron et al are already bringing in celebrities of their own to front campaigns and Lansley has talked about his preference for ‘nudging’ rather than ‘nannying’ in pushing forward ‘behaviour change programmes’. But for the time being, as Oliver and Labour bigwigs including Ed Balls and Andy Burnham turn on Lansley for daring to blaspheme against St Jamie of the Sun-Dried Tomato, let us crack open a bottle of unhealthy fizzy stuff and celebrate the possible passing of an irritating political era.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.