Jamie Oliver’s recipe for an unappetising election

How has the fat content of school dinners come to top the political agenda?

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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How has a reality television programme about a celebrity chef sticking his fork into the murky business of school dinners become a major focus of the pre-election campaign in British politics?

Why has Jamie Oliver, until recently widely seen as a figure of scorn and overpaid supermarket poster boy, suddenly become everybody’s favourite celebrity, hailed as ‘fantastic’ by government ministers while serious commentators wish aloud that he would stand against Tony Blair to be prime minister? And why has Oliver’s campaign to get something called Turkey Twizzlers banished from school menus been hailed as the harbinger of a ‘revolution’ in our society?

The strange elevation of Jamie Oliver and his hit Channel 4 programme, Jamie’s School Dinners, reveals little about the real problems facing children and schools, but rather a lot about the unappetising state of British politics and public life.

Oliver’s crusade to purify school meals has the right ingredients required to make an impact today. It is about public/personal health, the number one issue of the age. Better still, it stokes our exaggerated fears about children’s health and the child obesity panic. It involves ‘ordinary people’, led by an allegedly charismatic celebrity with a lovely dinner lady for a sidekick, making a moral stand and attacking the authorities for being ‘out of touch’. It is rich in authentic-looking emotion and feeling, which seems far more important nowadays than the small matter of it being rather thin on facts, evidence and argument. And it is conducted through the popular medium of reality television, which is where we are supposed to get our ersatz experience of real life today.

Readers of spiked will be familiar with the way that the ‘Healthy Living’ agenda often appears to dominate political debate, with one war after another being launched against junk food, passive smoking, binge drinking or unsafe sex. This is what one cabinet minister has called ‘the new politics of behaviour’, or what we prefer to characterise as the New Conformism. A central element is the attempt to make health into a moral issue. As Frank Furedi analyses on spiked this week, authorities who no longer feel able to condemn individuals’ behaviour as immoral are now far more likely to criticise it as unhealthy (see Our unhealthy obsession with sickness). The sins of the flesh become recast as bad for the health – especially the health of our children.

Against the background of these unhealthy obsessions, Oliver’s campaign has pressed all the right buttons for all the wrong reasons. It castigates school meals not just for being less than delicious, but essentially for being wicked, accusing them of destroying children’s health, welfare and education. His criticism of what children eat is also an attack on allegedly irresponsible politicians, schools and parents. No wonder the health moralists lapped it up.

As Rob Lyons has shown, much of this stuff is simply a regurgitation of ill-founded contemporary prejudices against modern food and food production (see Hard to swallow ). Many of the ‘facts’ about junk food and kids that were presented in Oliver’s programmes – and have subsequently been repeated everywhere else – have about as much basis in hard evidence as Blair’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Yet because it was presented by an impassioned ‘ordinary’ celebrity rather than a discredited politician, Jamie’s line has been swallowed without question by almost everybody. Many who would be cynical about any government or corporate statement on food have suspended their disbelief for our man from the Sainsbury’s ads. Oliver is the saleable face of the New Conformism.

This brings us to the next lesson of the Oliver episode for politics today. It has become accepted that all politicians are at best uninspiring accountants, at worst liars and sleaze-bags only in it for themselves. To be an effective political crusader, it seems, you must be outside politics. One self-righteous celebrity chef or angry patient waiting for an operation is considered likely to make more impact on the public mood than a dozen party speeches or poster launches. This is testimony to the low opinion we have of our leaders – and the even lower one they have of us.

Many have praised the ‘authentic’ character of Oliver’s campaign, contrasting it with the artificial pre-election stunts of the major political parties. Writers have dreamt aloud of what a breath of fresh air Oliver would bring if he ran the country instead of Blair. One columnist spoke for many when he raved about ‘one decent man’s heroic battle against an uncaring, bureaucratic system… in a country which no longer values leadership, principles and standards’ (1). Phew. And you thought it was just about Turkey Twizzlers.

Sensing that Oliver had struck a chord, politicians naturally sought to show that they were on his side. Blair declared that he was ‘remarkable’, children’s minister Margaret Hodge praised him as ‘fantastic’ and claimed that the government had been working with him all along. New Labour was arguably justified in pointing out that its Healthy Living policies had laid the basis for this crusade; after all, the New Conformism was not invented by Oliver’s TV programme. However, the anti-political mood that makes people warm to Oliver for supposedly ‘keepin’ it real’ meant this tactic was doomed, and the politicians were roundly booed for trying to ‘jump on Jamie’s bandwagon’.

By this week, the government and opposition parties were all scrambling to show how much they care about school dinners. Meanwhile Oliver himself was announcing on his website that, as a result of his campaign, ‘If changes are made it will only be months before British health, education and farming could be affected for the better. It could be one of the biggest food revolutions that England has ever seen’.

So the stagnation of political life in Britain has now come to this. A situation where public debate is so atrophied that a little issue such as the fat content of school dinners can rise to the top of the political agenda through the impact of a reality TV show and a poll on a celebrity website. Where a mixture of cynicism and childishness means that anything a politician says is treated as a con, while any emotional outburst aimed at politicians is treated as authentic. And where facts are apparently deemed less important than feelings.

It is a situation where a self-publicising millionaire chef elected by nobody is seen as more representative of ‘the people’ than those whom they voted to represent them. Where even political parties appear to value celebrity over conviction. Where horizons are so low that a campaign to raise the amount spent on school dinners by a few pence a portion can be hailed as the stuff of ‘the biggest food revolution that England has ever seen’. And there I was, imagining that might have been the revolution in modern industrial (and yes, processed) food production that allowed us to drive hunger from our society, rather than Turkey Twizzlers from our schools.

Perhaps the great school dinners crusade will disappear down the political toilet as quickly as it rose up the agenda. Even if it does, there seem certain to be further helpings of junk politics before the general election.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

(1) ‘Outside the Westminster village, heroes struggle to make Britain better’, George Trefgarne, Daily Telegraph, 21 March 2005

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Topics Politics


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