The Straits Times
Uproar over tax on pasties, mostly bought by the poor, a reminder of food’s powerful symbolic importance in politics
By Jonathan Eyal
Shaking hands or kissing babies have long been expected of politicians keen to show they are ‘ordinary folks’, just like their voters. Now it appears what they eat matters too.
A brouhaha over pastries erupted in Britain recently when Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced that hot food sold in bakeries and supermarkets will no longer be exempt from the sales tax. The move was swiftly criticised in the press and dubbed the ‘Cornish pasty tax’, after one of the affected products: a meat and potato pastry which originates from Cornwall.
Often costing as little as £1 (S$2) each, pasties are largely bought by poor consumers, and taxing them was immediately interpreted by the British media as proof that the government was indifferent to the struggles of working-class voters.
It did not help that Mr Osborne, the heir to a nobility title going back 17 generations, was forced to admit he ‘could not recall’ the last time he ate a Cornish pasty. Things worsened when Prime Minister David Cameron claimed to ‘love a hot pasty’, only to run into problems as to where he bought that much-loved snack. As the pasty controversy grew hotter, voters grew colder – the government’s popularity ratings plunged.
In vain did ministers argue that they were merely closing a tax loophole. Once a government acquires the stigma of being uncaring towards the dietary needs of poor people, it is almost impossible to shake it off.
Food, being so necessary for survival, often acquires powerful symbolic importance in politics. Marie Antoinette, France’s 18th-century queen, is forever remembered for saying ‘let them eat cake’ when confronted with news that peasants had no bread. In fact, there is no evidence that she ever uttered the phrase; it was an invention which started about half a century after her execution.
Still, the story is now so famous that it has become a symbol of aristocratic selfishness: A tabloid journalist dressed up as Marie Antoinette dogged British Cabinet ministers for an entire week as a publicity stunt over the pasty tax controversy.
Food has often decided the course of history too, as the British know only too well. The spark which lit the flame of the American Revolution was the Boston Tea Party of 1773, an act of insurrection against heavy taxes on a staple drink. Ireland’s independence became inevitable after the Great Potato Famine of the 19th century devastated the island’s population. And there is the Salt March of 1930, which started as a protest against a British retail monopoly in colonial India, and grew into a massive civil disobedience movement.
For better or worse, food remains an important symbol of national identity, as indispensable as a flag or a national anthem. Fish and chips in the case of England, haggis in Scotland, or burgers and apple pies in the case of the United States. When US soldiers were asked during World War II what they were fighting for, their most common answer was ‘for mom and apple pie’, a patriotic link exploited ever since by American politicians.
The Indonesian-Malaysian tussle over who ‘owns’ the beef rendang dish is well known in South-east Asia. Over in the Middle East, there is just as passionate a dispute between Lebanon and Israel over hummus, with both countries trying to claim the chickpea dip as exclusively their own.
The less-than-polite nicknames which the French and English use for each other are related to food: the English call the French ‘frogs’, while the French refer to the English as ‘le rosbif’.
And, since food equates with national identity, it is also used as a proxy for confrontations between nations. That was the case with a move by some US congressmen in 2003 to rename French fries as ‘freedom fries’, in retaliation against French opposition to America’s decision to invade Iraq. What’s forgotten in the food fight: The fries originated in Belgium.
French politicians also play this game: They frequently use McDonald’s restaurants as an example of everything bad or vulgar in US culture, carefully skirting around the inconvenient fact that, on a per capita basis, the French have long been the best European customers of McDonald’s.
Yet probably the trickiest problem for politicians is the association between eating habits and social classes. The challenge for any leader is not merely to pretend to love every humble dish, but do so convincingly enough for the voters. And that’s an art for which no recipe is available. Former US president George W. Bush was often praised for his ability to mingle with ordinary people in diners; he looked authentically American while munching a burger in a way other would-be presidents – such as Mr Al Gore or Mrs Hillary Clinton – never managed.
Over in class-conscious Britain, Sussex University professor Tim Bale claims ‘there isn’t anywhere else in the world where there is such a distinction between what the people at the top and what the people at the bottom eat’.
That’s probably an exaggeration, although Mr Peter Mandelson, a Labour Party heavyweight, will not be allowed to forget the occasion he mistook mushy peas – a dish eaten almost exclusively by unskilled workers in north England – for guacamole, an avocado-based dip preferred by upwardly mobile individuals in southern England.
The only consolation for politicians is that the link between food and social classes is not immutable; it can change. The humble potato, for instance, used to be considered as exclusively working-class diet, but now graces even the most aristocratic of tables. And the same seems to be happening to the Cornish pasty: A chain of British restaurants is now seeking to elevate the dish to ‘designer status’.