Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Remember when Prince Charles was widely considered to be mad?

His revelation in the 1980s that he talked to his plants led to his being ridiculed in the media as ‘a loon with his thoughts’. His vocal support for cranky causes such as integrated medicine, organic farming and mysticism was mocked everywhere from the tabloids to the broadsheets to that old satire staple Spitting Image, in which Charles was depicted as a dithering buffoon talking bollocks. In the 1980s, newspapers fretted about the possibility of Charles sitting ‘cross-legged on the throne wearing a kaftan and eating muesli’; there were concerns that he had joined the ‘Loony Green Brigade’. When he proposed creating a chair of parapsychology to investigate the supernatural world at the University of Wales (Wales not being supernatural enough, apparently), the Guardian accused him of ‘dabbling in the occult’.

Fast-forward 20 years and now Charles is taken seriously, at least by some. He is heralded as a ‘brave environmental warrior’ and cheered in some quarters for standing up to the NHS with his demands that it provide alternative medicine alongside medicine that has actually been proven to work. Charles hasn’t changed: he’s still a few diamonds short of a tiara, the pompous prince who presumes he has the right to lecture the rest of us simply by virtue of the House into which he was born. Rather, it is society that has changed. Society has taken on board much of the mysticism, suspicion of science and prejudice against humanity that were the preserve of Charles and small groups of greens 20 years ago. So now the ‘loon with his thoughts’ can come across as a ‘man of his time’, who easily finds a readymade audience for his petty prejudices. Consider his comments about McDonald’s.

During a visit to the United Arab Emirates yesterday, Charles reportedly said to a nutritionist at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi: ‘Have you got anywhere with McDonald’s? Have you tried getting it banned? That’s the key.’ His comments have been splashed across the press, and he’s been praised by health campaigners because apparently ‘it is important that high-profile figures make the connection between healthy eating and wellbeing’. What, no muesli-and-kaftan gags? In the past, Charles’ anti-McDonald’s comments might have been consigned to the Cranky Snob Box: it is hardly surprising that a royal should be a food snob; that a member of an archaic, feudal family should look upon big corporations that mass-produce food with suspicion; that a man from an institution which believes it was handpicked by God to rule forever and forever should think nothing of calling for a ban. Yet now, Charles’ comments chime with the times. It is positively fashionable to be anti-McDonald’s, and to blame the Golden Arches for everything from obesity to the warping of children’s minds to the destruction of local communities.

Alongside Charles’ concern about McDonald’s, there is the radical campaign group McSpotlight, which agitates against the building of new McDonald’s restaurants on the basis that they ‘result in noise and disturbances at all hours’ and ‘the smell from the kitchens, from waste storage and from litter discarded by customers may become offensive and attract vermin’. Here McDonald’s is depicted as dirty, a blight on towns and villages which apparently invites vermin (are they talking about rats or the people who eat at MaccyD’s…?) There was Morgan Spurlock’s big-bucks box office hit Super Size Me in 2004, in which Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s grub for an entire month and discovered – surprise, surprise – that it wasn’t especially good for his health. Spurlock argued that McDonald’s was ‘manipulating’ children through advertising and claimed that junk food can make kids slothful and stunt their intellectual growth. There are books about the apparently nasty contents of McDonald’s food, claims that McDonald’s is turning out a new generation of fat, sick kids, and calls for its ads to be banned. In Britain, Ofcom has heeded these calls by enforcing a ban on all junk food advertising during children’s TV programmes.

What’s behind this posh/radical campaign against a fast-food chain – the meeting of a royal mind with leftish minds over the apparent ‘evil’ of McDonald’s? It’s hardly as if one restaurant chain can be held responsible for ill-health. The terms in which McDonald’s is discussed – ‘vermin’, manipulative, destructive – suggests that this is about more than food and wellbeing. Indeed, as one newspaper points out, items in Charles’ organic food line, Duchy Originals, contain more calories and fat than some McDonald’s fare. Where an apparently wicked Big Mac has 229 calories, 11.12g of fat and 0.93g of salt, a Duchy Originals Cornish pasty has 264 calories, 13.6g of fat and 1.25g of salt. So if you’re the kind of person who worries about things like fat and salt intake, you would be wiser to wolf down a Big Mac rather than one of Charles’ expensive pies.

No, this is moralism – McMoralism, perhaps – dressed up as health concern. Behind today’s McDonald’s-bashing there lurks a prejudice against big corporations, against industrialisation itself, the ‘soulless’ mass production of food; there is also more than a smattering of anti-Americanism. And there is a barely concealed disdain for the McMasses, the kind of people who eat in McDonald’s. What is presented as pseudo-medical concern for people’s health and wellbeing is often really a judgement on the lifestyle and behaviour of a certain class of people who are presumed to be lazy, feckless, easily swayed by garish adverts, unconcerned for the wellbeing of their children and not sufficiently clued-up about how to make fresh and healthy pasta dishes from scratch. Do Charles and his strange bedfellows hate junk food, or ‘junk people’?

Read on:

Who’s afraid of…?

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Topics Politics


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