Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Hug a Foodie


It's a sign of how much the terms of political debate has changed that David Cameron's Glasgow speech has been so well-received. For it was, while wrapped up in soft-focus language, startlingly old-fashioned. Cameron's answer to "the broken society" was a wholesale remoralisation.

After nods in the direction of fixing the economy - which will certainly need fixing after another two years of Gordon Brown - and the NHS, the Tory leader talked in almost messianic terms:


our mission is to repair our broken society - to heal the wounds of poverty, crime, social disorder and deprivation that are steadily making this country a grim and joyless place to live for far too many people.


There was, he thought "a thread" that linked together such disparate things as knife crime, unemployment and ill-health: "a society that is in danger of losing its sense of personal responsibility, social responsibility, common decency and, yes, even public morality." To fix it will require "radical social reform" and taking on vested interests. And also tougher sentences. The hug-a-hoodie days would seem to be over.

Then he moved on to morality. "We as a society", he said (by which he meant "we as politicians") have been "far too sensitive" about "appearing judgemental":

Instead we prefer moral neutrality, a refusal to make judgments about what is good and bad behaviour, right and wrong behaviour. Bad. Good. Right. Wrong. These are words that our political system and our public sector scarcely dare use any more.


It's time, Cameron seemed to be saying, to "reassert core values". It's time to "get back to basics", as John Major put it in 1993. He might as well have gone the whole hog and spoken warmly of the Victorians, who were never shy about calling a spade a spade and then hitting a youthful miscreant over the head with it. And while our Dave talks a great deal about "society", his sentiments echo Mrs Thatcher's notorious and deliberately misunderstood remarks about there being "no such thing as society". Major was laughed at and Thatcher pilloried; Cameron, by contrast, has been widely praised. Something seems to be happening. The political mood has changed.

Cameron on Monday said things that a few years ago would have had the liberal media crying "lurch to the right". Indeed, he said some things that would have had him thrown out of his own shadow cabinet if he had said them a few years ago.

There is a danger of becoming quite literally a de-moralised society, where nobody will tell the truth anymore about what is good and bad, right and wrong. That is why children are growing up without boundaries, thinking they can do as they please, and why no adult will intervene to stop them - including, often, their parents. If we are going to get any where near solving some of these problems, that has to stop.

There are, I would suggest, two explanations for the lack outrage from, for example, the BBC. One is that the wind is with him. Everything Gordon Brown says - even something as innocuous as pointing out that people shouldn't waste so much food - is ridiculed and dismissed. Whereas even David Cameron's mistakes tend to be overlooked and forgotten. But he has also caught a genuine change of mood. People really are fed up with the no-blame society, the sentimental thinking that frowns on competitive sports in school and seeks to excuse wrongdoing in sociological gobbledegook. The call to personal responsibility chimes with what many people have always thought, but until recently was banned from much public discourse.

But personal responsibility isn't just about holding people accountable for their mistakes. It's also about the state standing back and allowing people to make mistakes in the first place. It's a two-way street. It's not the job of government to define or police personal morality, any more than it should be the job of government to protect people from the consequences of their bad choices. A government that intends to make people suffer for their stupidity, as Cameron's putative administration would seem to want to do, is in no moral position to preach.

One thing about the speech in particular struck me as rather odd. And that was the example he used to illustrate his new judgementalism. Obesity.

We talk about people being "at risk of obesity" instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it's as if these things - obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction - are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.

Largely true, of course. Genetic factors may determine what sort of metabolism you have, but within those limits your weight is a function of diet and exercise. If you are morbidly obese, it is likely that you eat too much and engage in insufficient physical activity. If your lifestyle is that of a fat slob, your body will reflect that; and it ain't no-one's fault but your own. And this will have consequences - for your health, your social life, your susceptibility to heart attacks and diabetes. So far, so unexceptional.

But if fat people are to blame for being fat, they're equally entitled to be fat if that is what they want to be. Just as they should be entitled to smoke, or binge-drink, or (I would add) drive without a seat-belt. If they die early as a result, well, that's bad news for them and their families. But if they pay their taxes and obey the law they should be allowed to enjoy their vices in peace, without finger-wagging lectures from nanny state.

At this point, some may object to the costs that overweight chain-smoking binge-drinkers impose on the NHS. There are grounds, I think, for not giving unrepentent alcoholics new livers when there are more "deserving" patients available. But I wouldn't want to make healthcare dependent on meeting lifestyle targets. Smokers might cost the taxpayer more in the short-term, but their premature deaths will save on pensions, which may well be more important in the long term as the population inexorably ages. The same goes for fatties.

In his choice of this example, Cameron seems almost to be attributing moral as well as physiological value to weight. Being fat is not a form of moral degeneracy. It is possible to be overweight and yet lead a good, decent life. Time was, indeed, when it was not only normal to be overweight, but a source of self-esteem, even approbation. Large people were seen as jolly, like Father Christmas, or charitable, or warm-hearted. They were those who embraced life, and their fellow human beings; generosity of girth reflected generosity of disposition. To be thin, on the other hand, was to be mean. Scrooge was emaciated, "the cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek," while the most cheerful of his tormentors, the Ghost of Christmas Present, was "a jolly giant, glorious to see" who sat enthroned among "turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch." He must have had terrible cholesterol.

"Let me have men around me that are fat," commented Julius Caesar, at least according to Shakespeare. Cassius, by contrast, has "a lean and hungry look," he "thinks too much". "I wish he were fatter", concludes the soon to be assassinated dictator. "Men like him are never able to enjoy life". Dracula was pretty thin, too, and his sinister nature is first revealed by his refusal to join Jonathan Harker for supper.

By placing obesity alongside alcoholism or drug abuse, and all three in the same sentence as poverty and social exclusion, Cameron seems to be going beyond the usual discourse about body-size, in which obesity is seen as pre-eminently a health problem. He would appear to be taking an observation more familiar from the US, that obesity is a class issue (you can never be too rich or too thin, as Wallis Simpson put it, ahead of the curve by at least 50 years) and giving it causal status. The connection between alcoholism and drug-taking and social dysfunction is indeed causative. Both ruin lives. Does obesity likewise cause poverty? Are fat people to blame, not merely for their shape but for anything else that might go wrong in their lives? More importantly, where does Cameron's fatophobia leave Nicholas Soames?

5 comments:

valdemar said...

'Smokers might cost the taxpayer more in the short-term, but their premature deaths will save on pensions, which may well be more important in the long term as the population inexorably ages. The same goes for fatties.'

I think the government would do well to put that in a glossy leaflet and post a copy through every letterbox in the land. A bald statement of fact - do what you want, it's your life.

That said, it's a situation when someone ruins their own health, especially when they are intelligent enough to know better.

A friend of mine is obese, due to over-eating and a sedentary lifestyle. (I have a strong suspicion that childhood poverty, the 'real' kind, lies behind his obsession with food.) He has of course got diabetes. The worst thing is the way he chides me about the need to save/invest for my retirement in the sensible way he has. I don't make the obvious response.

lost causes said...

Isn't Dave's point just that if you're fat AND you don't like being fat, then you should take responsibility. I don't think he's saying your being fat harms society, only that it harms you, and you've no one else to blame. By the way, I loved the Times' headline, which read something like "Fatties, help yourselves!"

I agree with Davey on some things he says (like this speech), but don't like his old school Christian leanings. Why isn't there a British political party in favour of small government AND personal liberties for the likes of us? Is there such a thing as a British libertarian?

The Heresiarch said...

I hope that's Cameron's point. But I am slightly concerned that he has nanny state tendencies. His scheme for increased home-visiting of new mothers, for example, opens the possibility of all sorts of state monitoring.

Edwin said...

' More importantly, where does Cameron's fatophobia leave Nicholas Soames?'

Well, perhaps, as one of the odious NS's luckless ex-lovers put it, like a wardrobe with the key left in.

I have grown to accept Cameron. It's unlikely the Tories will get back to their mid-50s position of being the only party in Scotland ever to get more than 50% of the vote, but they have an excellent candidate in Glasgow East.

Mind, I also wish the two Currans well (Galloway had a good Daily Record piece recently wishing Labour Curran well) so I suppose I am as about as representative a Scot as Gorgeous George.

whoateallthepies said...

He's not remotely concerned about any of those categories. This was all about his own moral and political positioning and making the same old small state arguments.
Its about targeting a message at a particular group of people. Not the fat and the poor themselves but at those who live alongside them. He is trying to stoke their outrage so that they will vote for him.
He used vulnerable categories who are unlikely to answer back. Very brave.