Chewing the fat

How it is important to avoid fatuous pronouncements about obesity if one wants to have a sensible di

CAESAR: "Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous."

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was able to see the upside of obesity in a way that would be unimaginable for our contemporary politicians.

Current rhetoric about the weight of the nation has, indeed, tended towards the hyperbolic and apocalyptic.

There is much talk of an “obesity time bomb”, and of an “epidemic of obesity” that challenges both the longevity not to mention the public finances of the nation.

In stark contrast to Caesar’s sanguine feelings about expanding waistlines, last week saw perhaps the most delightfully absurd pronouncement on this epidemic of fatness when Health Minister Alan Johnson claimed that obesity was a “potential crisis on the scale of climate change”.

It is worth stopping for a second to appreciate the sheer silliness of Alan Johnson’s claim. It is certainly true that the spread of obesity may curtail the upwards progress of life expectancy in the developed world, and may diminish the quality of life of many of the world’s affluent citizens through contributing to life years spent coping with diabetes or coronary heart disease. But even this unhappy prospect pales into insignificance when compared with the dangers of climate change.

Flooding and extreme weather have the capacity to cause hundred of thousands of deaths throughout the world, whilst desertification and rising sea levels have the capacity to displace tens of millions of people from their homes, leading to war, famine and unpredictable political upheavals.

Obesity is a problem of the affluent, comfortable, and (overly) well-fed, whereas those who will bear the brunt of climate change are the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged.

If obesity is among the worst problems faced by a nation, then what this tells us is that this nation is actually doing rather well. Johnson’s remarks equate the lifestyle problems of the world’s wealthy with the real matters of imminent life and death that are faced by the world’s poor.

It does a disservice to the importance of action on climate change to bracket it alongside problems caused by eating too much and not getting enough exercise.

It is not so much that the government’s response to obesity is itself nonsensical, but that much of the way it is reported and communicated is hysterical or confused.

The report of Foresight, the government’s science think tank, on Tackling Obesities: Future Choices contains a good ideal of sober analysis about the social, environmental and physiological mechanisms that lead to obesity, together with different proposals for how the problem might be tackled.

But discussion of the causal processes that increase the likelihood of obesity seem always to be stuck in an overly simplistic dichotomy – either it’s a matter of individual choice, and hence nothing to do with government, or else it’s the inevitable consequence of modern life, and therefore something for which individuals are not responsible.

The Foresight report attempted to make a number of nuanced points, but the predictable reaction from the media was that this meant that obesity “is not the fault of individuals” or, as John Humphrys put it, somewhat mysteriously, on the Today programme, people are obese because “our biology is out of step with the abundance and convenience offered by the modern environment”. (As if we might have expected “our biology” to have kept up with the modern world, and are free of the responsibility to make better choices in any circumstance in which it has failed to do so!)

Reasonable debate about social problems related to problems of addiction and unwise choices seem stuck in a rather reductive ‘blame game’. But the plausible positions in this area are neither the unsophisticated determinist view that sees obesity as nothing at all to do with fault or choice, nor the avowedly tough-minded (but hopelessly simplistic) position that sees this as a realm of individual choice untouched by broader issues of social policy.

In fact, there is nothing inconsistent in thinking that certain problems can result from individual’s choices (whether those problems are obesity, addiction, alcohol abuse or whatever else) whilst at the same time allowing that certain sorts of environmental and social backgrounds make some choices easier than others.

The overly reductive question of that asks who is “at fault” or “to blame” for problems like these needs to be pulled apart. There are causal questions here that range over issues about social, environmental and psychological mechanisms.

There are also irreducibly normative questions about who should bear the costs of these problems, and what should be done by governments and by individuals to tackle them. Good answers here will be boringly complex (like the Foresight report itself). Easier answers tend to suggest lazy thinking, but easy answers make better headlines.

This is not to say that there is nothing with which one might quibble in the government’s Tackling Obesities report.

Firstly, there is the bizarre pluralisation: from ‘obesity’ to ‘obesities’: a piece of wilful jargon-making without justification.

Secondly, one needs to be very careful when reading research that makes claims such as “if current trends continue, most people in the UK will be obese by 2050”.

Social trends, like economic trends, are malleable, unpredictable and subject to reversal. For example, current trends in obesity are not themselves 45 years old, which might suggest the debatable wisdom of a projecting them 45 years into the future without severe caveats.

Conditional claims that turn around substantial hypotheticals such as this need to be read as what they are, not as confident scientific predictions for how things will certainly be. A bit of reticence in making some of these big claims could hopefully only add to the plausibility of the overall analysis.

There is one claim, though, that should be excluded from further debate without further delay, in part because it seems to be irredeemably subject to misinterpretation. Again and again we hear that the spread of obesity will lead to “children dying before their parents”.

This conjures up visions of a generation of obese children who will predecease their mother and fathers.

But what is actually meant is simply that, with the growth of obesity, life expectancy might drop in such a way that many people will die at a younger age than their parents did. Whilst this is still, of course, an unpleasant prospect, it isn’t quite the horrific vista of losing a generation to obesity.

If claims like this aren’t made carefully, they can sound shrill and alarmist – fine, perhaps, for grabbing headlines, but not so good for reasoned reflection on difficult matters of policy.

Alan Johnson’s remarks about obesity and climate change bring to mind an altogether more sensible pronouncement on fatness from George Bernard Shaw. As Shaw rightly pointed out, “no diet will remove all the fat from your body because the brain is entirely fat. Without a brain, you might look good, but all you could do is run for public office.” Alan Johnson might give a bit more thought to his public utterances if he isn’t to end up unwittingly proving Shaw to be all too correct.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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