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8 April 2023

Will any politician let us have fun?

After misery piled on misery, we deserve better than calorie counts on alcohol.

By Marie Le Conte

There are political quotes that stay with you for a long time. They lodge themselves in your brain and become a part of who you are. Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” became a mantra for countless campaigners. Thatcher’s “if you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman” is still pointedly quoted by many feminists.

In an odd turn of events, the quote I currently cannot get out of my head is about grilled meat. In January, Brazil’s president Lula addressed some supporters in São Paulo. “They think that the poor don’t have rights,” he told them. When sworn in as president, he promised that he would fight for their rights – “the right to barbecue with family on the weekend, to buy a little picanha [a cut of beef], to that piece of picanha with the fat dipped in flour, and to a glass of cold beer”.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about that sentence in the past four months. It almost certainly runs in the dozens. A little picanha! The fat dipped in flour! A glass of beer! It’s perfect. It’s poetry. You can close your eyes and think about it and life feels a bit lighter. May we all soon be in a garden in the summer sun, eating and drinking and surrounded by our loved ones.

The reason I love that quote so much, I think, is that it is truly joyous. It is from a politician who recognises that life isn’t wholly about the place you live in and the job you have and the taxes you pay. It’s also about having a good time while we can. Who in the UK’s national mainstream politics is making that offer?

On this side of the Atlantic, what we have is a shadow minister who recently suggested that pubs should put calorie counts on alcohol drinks, and a Home Secretary hell-bent on stopping youths from loitering in parks. Going for a drink with your friends or sitting on the grass on a warm day are, apparently, not things that we should be able to do freely or unthinkingly. Please, no cheap, carefree fun – we’re British.

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It is a depressing state of affairs, especially because everything right now seems pretty, well, depressing. We have just come out of a pandemic that saw hundreds of thousands of people dying and millions more being shuttered in their homes for months at a time. We are having to deal with the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation. 

Oh, and it was announced this week that the state pension age would not rise anytime soon as there have been “slowing improvements in life expectancy”. It’s like living inside the punchline of that old joke – it’s both bad food and small portions.

[See also: Lula, a people’s last hope]

As an Onward study found last week, Britons are also having less leisure time than ever. Using data collected by the Centre for Time Use Research, Anoosh Chakelian in this very magazine concluded that “we are spending less time seeing our friends, eating at restaurants, going out, exercising and volunteering”.

That time has also been split into chunks small enough to no longer be truly relaxing. On a weekend in 1974, Anoosh found, a person could expect to “spend over five hours on leisure activities, broken up into four episodes across the day”. By 2014-15, the overall time had gone down to four hours and was, perhaps more importantly, split into seven 25-minute “leisure episodes”. Is it any wonder that just under half of British workers were “close to burnout” last year?

Of course, the place you live in and the job you have and the taxes you pay will influence how your life feels day to day, and politicians are right to focus on them. That doesn’t mean they should be the end of our ambitions. The neighbourhood Lula spoke at was a very poor one, which is why his speech felt especially poignant.

In speaking of the delight of having some grilled beef and a bit of beer, he acknowledged that small pleasures can go a long way towards building a happier life. Again, who is making that case in Britain? Who is trying to make our public spaces nicer and easier to access so people can meet even if they don’t have the money to go to bars or restaurants? Who is campaigning to reopen spaces in which young people can gather and have fun together?

Who is trying to make childcare so affordable and efficient that parents can not only survive but really thrive? Who is fighting to stop pubs and clubs closing so early so anyone who wants a drink and a dance can get them without military-levels of advance planning? Who remembers the golden era of terrace Britain right after the pandemic, and is working to convince councils to let people sit in the sun again? Really, what I’m asking is: who will give us our piece of picanha, with the fat dipped in flour? Who will stand up for good times Britain?

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