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4 May 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:16pm

From coronavirus to Brexit: how food metaphors fuel politics

What we eat can symbolise a deeper set of feelings about national identity, and have a powerful impact on political discourse.

By Harry Stopes

The hostile response to China after coronavirus emerged in Hubei province draws from a deep well of racist stereotypes – but perhaps the most persistent of these have referenced food. With the virus thought by some to have emerged originally in bats, and the apparent link between several early sufferers and the live animal market in Wuhan, lurid claims about the Chinese diet have gained traction, blaming the pandemic on Chinese “delicacies”.

Long before all restaurants were forced to close across Britain, Chinese restaurants were reporting sharp declines in business. Food evokes strong feelings, and has a striking capacity to bear political symbols and carry metaphorical weight.

This is hardly a new phenomenon in British politics. In a story which now feels as if it belongs to the distant past, last July Boris Johnson dramatically wielded a plastic-wrapped kipper from the podium during his successful campaign for the Conservative Party leadership. He claimed to have received it from a national newspaper editor, who had in turn received it from a kipper smoker from the Isle of Man. A kipper smoker who, Johnson declared with a flourish, “is utterly furious, because after decades of sending kippers like this through the post, he has had his costs massively increased by Brussels bureaucrats who are insisting that each kipper must be accompanied by this” – he ducked behind the podium to retrieve his next prop – “a plastic ice pillow.” Johnson, and his fawning audience at the Tory leadership hustings, clearly found this all very funny.

The narrative at the heart of this performance was quickly contested. The European Commission pointed out that the guidelines Johnson was talking about were set by the UK’s very own Food Standards Agency, and eminently sensible they are too: “Foods that need refrigerating must be kept cool while they are being transported. This may need to be packed in an insulated box with a coolant gel or in a cool bag.”

The EU has rules on the transport of fresh fish (also very sensible – unless you prefer your fish rotten), but it’s solely up to national governments to regulate the transit conditions of smoked fish. Finally, the Isle of Man is in neither the EU nor the UK. It makes laws “closely based” on EU and UK rules in order to comply with the regulations in its principal markets.

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Though it seems ridiculous, the little story of the kipper revealed a lot about the complicated but consistent power of food as a symbol in British discussions about its relationship with its neighbours: food metaphors are a recurring feature of the political language that surrounds Brexit.

Johnson knows better than anyone that an anecdote exposing Brussels bureaucracy cannot truly be fact-checked. Instead, its power lies in its ability to capture the imaginations of people who already believe the system to be farcical. And Johnson relies on enough of his audience finding the very mention of a kipper in a political speech to be comical, as though foodstuffs are inherently ridiculous as a subject of political discourse.

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The kipper performance works firstly through the assumption that it’s innately absurd for items of food to be subject to government regulation. Secondly, it frames the relationship between British national identity and EU membership in terms of national cuisine. The Brussels bureaucrat can never properly understand good old-fashioned British tastes, and good old-fashioned British common sense.

This is by no means the first time Johnson has used tall tales about the EU’s interest in British food to his advantage. As a young Daily Telegraph reporter in Brussels, the Prime Minister cooked up an elaborate story about the EU’s ban on prawn-cocktail flavoured crisps. He is also well known for claiming that the EU was banning bendy bananas, a lie he evoked as recently as 2016. His articles ran under headlines such as “Threat to British pink sausages” and “EC cheese row takes the biscuit”.

fHe has described these pieces as a series of Billy Bunter-style pranks, telling the BBC he was metaphorically “chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England” (adding that the “amazing, explosive effect” his articles were having gave him a “rather weird sense of power”). Readers were at liberty to fact-check these “reports” themselves at the supermarket, where bananas kept on curving and prawn cocktail crisps never went away. But the political efficacy of such “euromyths” for the Eurosceptic cause is beyond doubt.

If the object for Johnson were simply to tell lies about an interfering Brussels that cast the EU in a bad light, he could just as well talk about more substantial subjects. But there’s something different, and special, about food. A packet of crisps or large slice of cake evokes naughty enjoyment, a pleasure that seems beyond the reach of the state. When it comes to politics, food often comes to symbolise a deeper set of feelings about national identity, abundance and scarcity.

Likewise, the Conservative promise of an “oven-ready Brexit” during the last election campaign played on the convenience of the ready meal to promise any old Brexit – without having to say so in so many words. A Brexit deal which actually provides very little certainty and will lead to months more debate and negotiations, is represented paradoxically as something familiar, easy and comforting, with the psychic bonus of a dopamine hit when the exit poll went ping.  

Food is also a key issue for those opposed to Brexit. While potential interruptions to the supply of particular medicines rightly played a prominent role in discussions of a no-deal Brexit, they have a limited potency as many healthy people are able to imagine that these shortages wouldn’t affect them. Mass food shortages – of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and even Marmite – are harder to ignore, but seem not to trigger anxieties that run as deep as those on which Johnson and other Eurosceptics have expertly played

That said, as we imagine a future Atlanticist Britain, many are alarmed by the likelihood of being forced to accept US food safety standards as part of any new trade deal, a key priority for the Trump administration. US food safety rules allow small quantities of contaminants like rodent faeces, insect fragments and maggots. The EU rules by which British farmers and food manufacturers currently abide permit no such foreign bodies.

In the US, raw chicken is treated with a chlorine-based disinfectant, a practice banned in the EU more than 20 years ago. As a result, in recent years chlorinated chicken has become a symbol of scary American food hygiene standards: while the chlorine wash itself is probably not harmful, its efficacy against bacteria is less certain. Government studies in the two countries have shown that salmonella is more than six times more prevalent in the US.

The spectre of chlorinated chicken has proven remarkably troublesome for right-wing Brexiters who have repeatedly tried and failed to reduce its potency as a talking point. “Chlorinated chicken would be good for you. It’s time to tuck in,” ran the headline on one blog on Conservative Home, while the Adam Smith Institute produced a briefing paper called “Chlorinated Chicken: Why you shouldn’t give a cluck.”

Yet chlorinated chicken has been an indispensable symbolic bulwark against the transformation of everyday life in the UK that a post-Brexit trade deal with the US would represent. The visceral nature of the disgust the phrase still conjures has been crucial to framing deregulation in a way that powerfully counters the usual “free market” rhetoric, with its reliance on abstractions such as choice and opportunity.

Unlike Johnson’s kipper, the trope of chlorinated chicken has the great virtue of being true. Whereas Johnson’s joke relies on the idea that regulating food standards is inherently ridiculous, “chlorinated chicken” as a phrase makes a potent case for regulation as succinctly as possible. We have felt the sting of chlorine in our eyes at the swimming pool, and caught its medicinal tang in our nostrils, and we don’t want it anywhere near our nuggets and sandwiches.

Political commentators have tended to treat evocations of food in political discourse as mere political gimmicks. But there is a long and complicated history of food acting as a vehicle for the expression of political ideas about Britain’s relationship with the continent.

These associations are evoked not only by Eurosceptics. In a famous speech delivered in Hendon during the 1975 referendum, Margaret Thatcher urged voters to cast a vote for remain. Stating what she called “the food facts of life”, Thatcher told her audience that the principal thing they should understand about the European Economic Community was that it meant cheap, reliable supplies of food. Thatcher cast food, and hence the EEC, as a symbol of safety and security in an uncertain world.

We could also link increased Euroscepticism in the 1990s with the EU ban on British beef exports, which provided the right-wing media with an opportunity to play the victim while defending the honour of John Bull’s favourite dish. Boris Johnson, by then back in London as a Telegraph columnist, wrote that Britain should sabotage the single currency in protest.

Fishing was central to the 2016 Leave campaign, not only because of its capacity to move votes in neglected seaside towns, but also because of the symbolic power of the work itself. Fishermen perform a difficult job in dangerous conditions, and so can stand for a form of masculine working dignity: like coal miners, without the same associations with trade union and Labour politics.

Food here represents independence, strength and self-determination. The EU’s supposed meddling with “our” bananas, sausages and beef shows how conversations around food can channel deeper concerns about British male potency. Thinking about the role food plays in this landscape might help the left as it reflects upon why it has failed to grasp the opportunity that this ongoing crisis represents to break through and connect emotionally with a larger public. The manner of the Tory election victory showed the success of the British right in making their case consistently at the level of what they imagined to be a popular set of gut feelings.

“Hearts starve as well as bodies,” runs James Oppenheim’s famous poem of 1911. “Give us bread, but give us roses.” Roses, absolutely. But we cannot forget the power of the politics of the stomach. 

The task for the government’s opponents, including the Labour Party and its new leadership, must now be to contest that very space. What passes for common sense and gut instinct must be shaped not by the purely symbolic rhetoric of the right, but rather by the material conditions that produce the urgent needs of ordinary people in this country after a decade of Tory rule. There’s less room for larks when your job is to point out the realities behind the metaphors that supply the governing party with punchlines.

The appalling effects of austerity are most visible and vivid in the spread of foodbanks around the country. It’s hard to joke about people going hungry.  Enough people in Britain were still laughing along with Boris in December to give him a parliamentary majority – but he’s been making the same jokes for 30 years now. With Brexit still set to be “done” – even in the teeth of a devastating pandemic – Johnson will need new lines before laughter gives way to despair.