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28 April 2021

Sasha Swire’s Diary: In defence of lobbying, in praise of lobsters, and learning to love our electric car

I’m a rubber-burning, lobster-guzzling apologist for lobbyists – just what you would expect from an old Tory self-isolating in the shires. 

By Sasha Swire

As I get older I feel I want to save things more: grouse, wildfowl from shooting at dusk; an earwig that has found itself on to my pillow, trailing its pincers behind him like agricultural machinery. When I pass a lorry on the motorway with livestock inside, I now have to switch off the left side of my brain. I can’t even swat a wasp any more, and certainly not a bee. While my children scream, “Kill it!” and tear out of the room, I just put a glass over the creature, slide a greetings card underneath, and go outside, whispering “Godspeed” on release. My girls don’t know what it means to give life yet, what a precious thing it is; they still see the bee as an enemy, not a beautiful thing. They haven’t experienced that maternal compulsion to look after something or someone who is defenceless.

When it comes to animals I seem to be between two worlds; the edges have become more uncertain, blurred. Something wants to break down my meat-eating habits, but something else won’t let it: taste, flavour, smell, the family around the kitchen table, a feast for friends. I don’t want to be restricted in my offerings to them.

My mother in law, “the Dowager”, buys some “lobbies” – as some in her set call lobsters – as a thank you for looking after her during lockdown. It’s an opulent pleasure in this time of doom and disease. Again, I come face-to face with the ethical question of boiling these creatures alive just for our own hedonistic consumption. Lobsters are such hapless creatures, awkward and heavy limbed, their front legs similar to JCB front shovel excavators – in fact, everything about them looks mechanical. I try to neuter their power for half an hour in the freezer but they are still wriggling a bit afterwards.

Of course, they will suffer – all animals do when they enter the food chain; most eating is, after all, animal exploitation. I put them in the pot all the same, watch life slant out of them; their perfect sea-green bodies turning a flaming red. Am I standing above this cauldron as I would in a Roman circus or a medieval torture chamber? No, I get no pleasure from it. Can I detach myself from its death as I sink my teeth into its delicately chewy, succulent and sweet flesh? Yes, I’m afraid I can.

[see also: Sasha Swire’s Diary: Squabbling birds, Priti Patel’s bloodlust, and why Keir Starmer won’t save Labour]

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Nose-to-tail eating

The next day I make a bisque with the left-overs. Roasting the shells then cooking them with some chopped onions, celery and carrots, adding tomato paste, tarragon, a bottle of Clamato, chicken broth and some Lingham’s Chilli Sauce, my go-to store cupboard staple. The soup is delicious, luxurious even, and there is not a single scrap that doesn’t get used. I feel somehow I have brought beauty back into the lobsters’ remains. You could not say their lives and deaths were a waste when you bring a spoon of bisque like this to your mouth.

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Why politics needs lobbying

On the subject of lobbies, can we just get real? Yes, political lobbying is a mostly unseen activity, with those involved moving through the crevices of Westminster’s murky sea floor. But it is also an essential component of the system, which is why everyone is at it. Trade unions do it, green groups do it, even nation states do it; religions do it, constituents do it, educated lefties like Blair and Mandelson do it – are we really going to call off the whole thing?

The term “lobby” is defined in the dictionary as simply “a group of people seeking to influence legislators on a particular issue”. The word derives from the “lobbies” that surround the parliamentary debating chambers, in which, in bygone years, interested parties would meet peers and MPs to press their case. Politics, after all, is a contact sport; it cannot take place without interaction between players, it connects inside and outside worlds.

Do we really want to ban business bosses from having direct access to ministers? Should civil servants be driven back into their wedding-cake Whitehall offices, cut off from all commercial realities? Are we really going to regulate human contact? OK, tweaks might be needed – they always are – but the British system already has plenty of checks and balances to prevent wrong-doings. There is only a scandal, surely, if scrutiny is bypassed, which it rarely is.

Our friend electric

OK, I kill lobsters, but I am doing my bit for the environment in other ways. My new car is a Tesla. When it first arrived all we could do was circle it like nervous sheep moving around a sleeping panther. Our cars have always been diesel-spewing old bangers paid for on the drip, so we didn’t know quite how to handle this sleek, modern, somewhat superior machine, with its cocked eyebrow and yellow lights for eyes.

My millennial children were appalled and thought it “vulgar” (you just can’t win with that lot!), and they groaned when we told them the doors open upwards like pigeon wings – and that it does the tango and the splits and drives by itself so you can get sloshed on dry martinis in the front seat and enjoy the views. Still, my husband had to turbo-boot me into it, I was that scared to take it for a spin. I now feel differently, rather like Wacky Races’ Penelope Pitstop in her bright-pink racing uniform with long gloves and white go-go boots; the glamour girl of the electric pedal. I go “HAY-ULP” as it revs to 60 miles per hour in 2.1 seconds, leaving all other vehicles in its wake, smoke billowing out behind – except there is no smoke because that’s the point of it, Greta.

So, there you are: I’m a rubber-burning, lobster-guzzling apologist for lobbyists; the flag is up and away I go in the opposite direction, in the wacky races of current public opinion. Just what you would expect from an old Tory self-isolating in the shires. 

“Diary of an MP’s Wife” by Sasha Swire is published by Little, Brown

[see also: Why the government needs to drive the UK’s electric vehicle dream]

This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas