Will Self: A lesson for George Osborne in buying austerity burgers

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Standing in the sub-post-officecum- convenience-store on the Wandsworth Road, I stared down into the Stygian depths of one of its freezer cabinets. Down there might be, for all I knew, the cryogenically-preserved remains of Walt Disney – it looked capacious enough. What there were on the upper layers of the ice cap were ready meals of bamboozling cheapness: a “steaklet meal”, comprising meat, chips, beans and onion gravy for £1.69; a Birds Eye chicken burger for 32p (£1.28 for a pack of four). What to choose?

I was minded, this week, to celebrate cheapness, given the recent furore concerning the Chancellor’s pricy gourmet burger. Let me apply a refreshingly hot and lemonscented hand towel to your forgetful forehead: Boy George – for it was he – invited Fleet Street’s finest snappers in to portray him chowing down on a blokeish burger as a prelude to delivering his swingeing budgetary cuts. You can readily grasp the (un)reasoning: when the proles see me eating their kind of food, they won’t feel quite so bad about having to visit those perfectly nice food banks. Unfortunately for Boyo, other sleuths of the Fourth Estate soon tracked down the origin of the burger: a branch of Byron some miles off (see Real Meals passim for a dissection of this bling ring of a chain), and compared its hefty price tag with the way more economical – geddit – patties closer to hand.

So it was that my gaze alighted on the “2 Flame Grilled Cheese Burgers” produced under the Yankee branding by Glendale Foods of Salford. These burgers weighed in at £1.49 for the pair – comparatively pricy, when you can get a hamburger at McDonald’s for £1.10. Still, nobody but an Old Pauline would sneer at a 74.5p burger, so I tossed the dosh and headed home to the microwave.

Food and solecisms go hand in oven glove when it comes to British politicians; one recalls Peter Mandelson’s guacamole-formushy peas incident, and the “plot” hatched by Blair and Brown over polenta at Granita in Islington – a divvying up of the bill that resulted, over the subsequent decade-and-ahalf in an expansion of the fuck-you-mine’sa- focaccia class, and closely correlated rise in obesity among social class four. With Labour politicians the gaffes usually consist in their turning out to be just as echt bourgeois as those they face across the fruit and veg aisle of the Commons; while for Tories the problems usually come when they try and put on proletarian airs – remember Billy Hague’s disastrous baseball cap/theme-park outing? No amount of vapid pronouncing on international affairs will ever rid him of its peaked shadow on his shiny pate.

At home I assembled a top panel of burger tasters (my two younger sons), and set about irradiating the Yankees – and it was only then that I realised it was the Fourth of July! How suitable, I thought, to be eating a confection of beef; beef fat; water; rusk; seasoning – comprising: barley flour, salt, dextrose, diphosphates, preservative, sodium metabisulphite, flavouring and pepper extract; soya protein isolate, onions and more salt (there’s a whopping 1.9g per portion), on this, the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of American Independence. But these were only the ingredients of the beef burger! If I were to itemise all the care and chemicals that went into the bun, cheese and relish we’d still be here come the 238th anniversary – unless one or both of us had been taken out by a Predator drone in the meantime.

Anyway, I warmed to the micro-waved cheese burger, but my boys recoiled violently. The older one cried out, No! when I placed one before him, then fled the kitchen. The younger tarried, gawping, then took to his heels as well. It was left to me to bite down on the Yankee with all my republican fervour. True, the bun, cheese and relish were grim – but no grimmer than most burgers. It was with the meat that the Yankee distinguished itself. The box warned of possible remaining fragments of bone – if only! Anything to give this drek some texture would’ve been a blessing – as it was, the “beef” had the consistency of . . . well . . . the consistency I imagine George Osborne’s cheeks would have; if you were to slice them from his self-satisfied face – or arse – and prepare them in the same way.

Which brings me, fairly neatly, to the moral of this week’s column: so long as you aren’t vaguely bovine and wandering around in fields linked to the Glendale Foods supply chain, you can save your face, or your arse – but never both, George, never both.

Digging for gold: a mother and child choose meat from a supermarket freezer in 1950. Photograph: Getty Images/Hulton Archive.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

Show Hide image

The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump