Bake-off: a table of cakes for the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: The kids protest but sugary treats are an ever stickier issue

The low-fat yoghurts I shovel down my neck and the smoothies I’ve been promoting to my vegetable-allergic teenage son might just as well have been crystal meth.

I’m so obedient it’s tragic, really. I am a government campaign’s model audience. Give me a command, see how I run. A few weeks ago, the news was full of how sugar was killing us all. I approached the newspaper articles with some complacency, taking for granted that we were a virtuous household, but then was horrified to see from the pictures of all the things containing “as much sugar as a can of Coke” that I was wrong. 

The low-fat yoghurts I shovel down my neck and the smoothies I’ve been promoting to my vegetable-allergic teenage son might just as well have been crystal meth. Being a typical self-blaming middle-class mother, I spent the next hour gloomily pondering this unexpected failure, before mentally regrouping and deciding it was time to take action. That evening I announced to the dinner table that we were “having a crackdown on sugar”.

This went down about as well as you might imagine. Protestations that they were already being forced to eat a diet virtually Stone Age in its wholesomeness and frugality were met by my unyielding assertions that I was now in possession of New Information, rendering everything we’d thought up until now about our eating habits out of date. Rationing was about to begin. Foods that had once been a treat had insidiously wormed their way into every mealtime and were now back to being a treat. The response was a general wailing and gnashing of teeth, followed by despondency. For the next few days, cupboards would be opened ostentatiously with mournful sighs to reveal that where once there had been KitKats, now there was empty space; where once there were Honey Nut Clusters, now there was porridge.

A week or two went by, but then a certain sneakiness crept in. While I’d adjusted the shopping order, everyone else, it seemed, had adjusted their daily schedule to incorporate a trip to the shops for emergency biscuits. I had hidden a few chocolatey titbits, to be doled out at intervals and not exceeding the daily recommended allowance (although, the more I looked into it, the more this seemed to be an alarmingly vague and shifting figure, comfortingly high on the back of cereal packets, impossibly low according to World Health Organisation guidelines). Handing out the sweet treats without giving away the hiding places was tricky, and soon it became obvious that the secret stash was secret no longer and it began to disappear faster than I was distributing it.

Into this already fracturing scenario came a sudden and extremely unwelcome announcement. In the matter of vegetable consumption, it turns out that five a day is useless and that we should be eating seven, if not ten. And it can’t be fruit or, even worse, smoothies (yes, I’m looking at you, Tracey Thorn, as I read this out on the radio): it must be mostly vegetables; proper green, leafy, cabbage-smelling, earth-smeared vegetables. This was a bit of a blow. I might have deluded myself that our sugar consumption was Paltrow-ish, but there was no way I could stretch the youngest’s tally of baked beans and pasta sauce to look like ten portions of kale. I am defeated. Later that day, standing in the queue by the till at the local Tesco Express, I look at all the shiny things on sale. Reaching out, all I can touch is a floor-to-ceiling array of things that will kill me. Ciggies, booze, choccies; nothing that is necessary or good for me, but all of them in their own way representing a little shot of joy, a hit of pleasure to brighten the day. Despite my obedience, and my willingness to listen to health campaigns, I don’t know why we’re so surprised that we like these things. We wonder how we’ve ended up here, eating things that aren’t really food and ignoring all the health warnings, but it’s simply because we’re human.

We need treats, and it’s only a sliding scale of spending that leads you from the pricey ones that will do you no harm – trips to the cinema, new shoes, weekend minibreaks – to these little, cheaper ones, which will. If you’re lucky you can balance the two, and congratulate yourself for doing as you’re told, and being good, while you cross your fingers and hope that it’s good enough. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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