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Real Meals: a double-shot of sanctimony

Starbucks coffee is so bad I'll happily walk several blocks just to avoid drinking the stuff

I visited the Pacific Northwest quite a bit in the early 1990s. Seattle struck me as having a definite coffee hue, just as many other cities have a predominant colour (the piss-green of Paris springs to mind). A coffee hue, and a coffee smell. Starbucks began frothing in the 1970s, and the chain was set to lash out across the US and then the world on the cusp of the 1990s. But this year, Starbucks' CEO, Howard Schultz, announced that there would be significant closures among the approximately 700 Starbucks in the UK, and ruefully admitted that the business had expanded far too recklessly.

I should cocoa. Time was when you couldn't turn your back on a family-run cafe without the twin-tailed corporate siren - a logo, incidentally, that was once replaced with a crown to facilitate market penetration in the Islamic world, which was offended by the display of the female figure - snaffling it up. Starbucks operated at a loss, saturated local areas, doubled up franchise and company-owned outlets and exploited loopholes in planning laws. The headline in the US satire 'zine, The Onion, said it all: "New Starbucks opens in restroom of existing Starbucks".

Skinny-this, frappe-that

I wouldn't mind all those local businesses being swamped in the half-fat tide, if Starbucks didn't serve such dreadful coffee. It's so bad that I'll happily walk several blocks just to avoid drinking the stuff. The company boasts that it employs a "state-of-the-art espresso system", the Mastrena, but that's neither here nor there. Good espresso is a function of two things: high pressure steam, and high quality coffee - end of story.
All that bollocks about skinny-this and frappe-that is enough to make the discerning coffee drinker (or addict, as he or she is known) puke. It's as if your local smack dealer offered a loyalty card, wifi access and "fair-trade" heroin. (Come to think of it, given the parlous state of the Afghan economy and its democratically elected traffickers, the latter isn't such a bad idea.)

Not that the punters only visit Starbucks to get their caffeine fix - they go to eat as well. Popping into Starbucks for a breakfast of muffin and froth has become as much a part of British urban life as bread and dripping were to earlier generations - so much so that in my post-apocalyptic novel, The Book of Dave, the breakfast of the distant future is known simply as "Stabbuk".

Some view the Starbucks ethos with a venti cup full of foaming cynicism. You won't be surprised to learn that I'm one of them. Even on a quiet weekday afternoon, the reek of sanctimony is stronger than the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Starbucks has perfected the hessian-sack, blond-wood school of pseudo-caring capitalism. Relax in this armchair under a ghastly mass-produced daub that looks like an enlarged detail of a Matisse, and let the caffeine'n'sucrose wave sweep you away!

Mrs Jellyby with a lawyer

In British branches, all espresso is made with 100 per cent Fairtrade-certified coffee - everywhere you look, there's a screed on "The Starbucks Coffee Story". I don't doubt that Fairtrade does help some poor farmers, but Starbucks is a Mrs Jellyby armed with a big, stick-shaped lawyer. While you sit there sipping your frappucino and dreaming of all the downtrodden coffee farmers you're helping, remember Howard Schultz's remark about organised labour: "If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn't need a union."

Starbucks employees in the US have claimed they were dissuaded from joining a union. As quite a few of them are immigrants from the coffee-yielding zones, there's a nice symmetry in their labour being directly yoked to a support price back home. But I wouldn't go so far as those soi-disant "anti-capitalists" who smash up branches during G-whatever meetings. The petrol-bombers and the muffin-munchers are two sides of the same foil-wrapped chocolate coin. No amount of equitably bought coffee is going to abolish the US farm support price, just as no amount of beating on "da pigz" is going to end in a cosy world full of bike-riders composting their own shit. But what - I hear you cry - was the food like? It was OK. The tuna was the healthy option - and cheap. As for the cheesecake - there's not a lot anyone can do wrong to that, unless they're vegan. But the coffee? As Seattle's most famous son would say: "Nevermind".

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 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

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Why Theresa May is wrong about immigration

The inconvenient truth: migration helps Britain.

Immigration is a disaster. Well, Theresa May says so, anyway.

May’s speech to the Conservative conference is straight out of the Ukip playbook – which is rather curious, given that she has held the post of Home Secretary for five years, and is the longest-serving holder of the office for half a century. It is crass and expedient tub-thumping (as James Kirkup has brilliantly exposed). And what May is saying is not even true. These are saloon-bar claims, and it is striking that she should unleash them on the Conservative party conference.

“When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society,” May says. Yet, whatever she might say, racism is on the decline. The BNP’s vote in the general election collapsed from 563,000 in 2010 to just 1,667 in 2015. Research by Rob Ford has revealed that the nation is becoming far more tolerant to marriage between races: while almost half of those born before 1950 oppose marriage between black and white people, only 14 per cent of those born since 1980 do. And between 2011 and 2014 (when the figure was last measured), the British Social Attitudes Survey reported a decrease in self-reported racial prejudice, from 38 to 30 per cent.

May also said: “at best the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero.” This is another claim that does not stand up. An OECD study two years ago found that the net contribution of immigrants is worth over £7bn per year to UK PLC: money that would otherwise have to be found through higher taxes, lower spending or more borrowing.

May also asserted that “We know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether.” This ignores the evidence of her own department, who have found “relatively little evidence that migration has caused statistically significant displacement of UK natives from the labour market in periods when the economy is strong.” An LSE study, too, has found “no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs, wages, housing or the crowding out of public services.”

The inconvenient truth is that rising net migration is both proof of, and a reason why, the UK economy is doing well. As immigration has increased, so has growth; employment has risen, including for Britons. This is no coincidence.

To win the “global race”, a country needs to attract skilled immigrants who work hard and put in more than they take out. That is exactly what the UK is doing: net migration has just risen to 330,000, a new record. As a whole these migrants “are better educated and younger than their UK-born counterparts”, as an LSE study has found. In the UK today there is a simple rule: where immigration is highest, growth is strongest. The East Coast and Cornwall suffer from a lack of migration, while almost 40 per cent of a immigrants live in the thriving capital.

Lower immigration would make the UK a less dynamic economy. Firms in London enjoy a “diversity bonus”: those with an ethnically diverse management are more likely to introduce new product innovations, and are better-able to reach international markets, a paper by Max Nathan and Neil Lee has found.

Puling up the drawbridge on immigration would have catastrophic consequences for UK PLC. The OBR have found that with zero net-migration, public sector net debt as a share of GDP could rise to 145 per cent by 2062/63; with high net-migration, it would fall to 73 per cent.

So May should be celebrating that the UK is such an attractive place to live, and how immigration has contributed to its success. By doing the opposite, she not only shows a lack of political leadership, but is also stoking up trouble for the Prime Minister – and her leadership rival George Osborne – during the EU referendum.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.