Show Hide image

What Pancake Day and the royal wedding have in common

The occasion occupies the same space as Kardashians, or curling. 

Pancakes are like royalty: they have a long history in Britain, they radiate luxury, and, like so many other things, they’re taken too seriously by the Americans. 

Historically, Shrove Tuesday aka Pancake Day  is the last day on which one could stuff their face with eggs, milk and sugar before observing 40 days of Lent. It has roots in both pagan and Christian traditions. 

Although its religious origins are now long-forgotten, the date is still celebrated around the world in a multitude of ways. Germans and Italians dress up. The Americans and the French celebrate with street parades. In Britain, where Shrove Tuesday is now largely exists only under its modern moniker, the focus is squarely (or roundly) on pancakes.

But why? We can't really like pancakes that much, for if we did, surely we’d eat them far more often? Why have your co-workers spent today, literally the only time they have made pancakes in the past year, arguing over whether crepes or stacks are superior; nearly coming to blows over maple syrup vs lemon and sugar?

The British allegiance to Pancake Day begins with childhood indoctrination. In my school, our teachers took Pancake Day very seriously, and from a young age, ensured we knew how to toss a pancake. This year, Manchester United footballers posed with local primary school children during a pancake-making session. Primary school websites include pancake songs, debates about toppings and boasts about just how many pancakes their pupils consumed.

It could be that teachers are tired and children are easily distracted by something sweet sizzling in a pan. But there is some method to the madness. A study published in 2016, by the University of Texas found that children engaging in a group activity are more likely to be affiliated to the group, rather than just being around them.  

Dr Nicole Wen, the lead author of the study, concluded that this was because “human psychology is geared to motivate individuals to engage in behaviors that increase inclusion within their social groups”. Making pancakes on Pancake Day is the ultimate expression of this. It is an arbitrary day of festivities that we can all take part in. 

Though it is arbitrary, beyond the actual nicely-fried batter, Pancake Day works because we all take it seriously. It occupies the same space as Kardashians, or curling. They have little impact on our day-to-day lives, and logically there is no reason we should derive pleasure from them, and yet we invest emotionally in them. 

Perhaps the ultimate example of taking the ridiculous seriously and revelling in it is royal weddings. A study of the coverage from the BBC and ITV during the 2011 royal wedding found that, after Will and Kate, the third protagonist of the days events was in fact the public.

Both channels would broadcast interviews with members of the public, which they could then use to describe the national mood. 

That study concluded that “ordinary members of the public legitimised the event’s significance” and that these interviews “functioned to invite the viewer to participate, to integrate themselves with this ‘centre’ of festivity.” 

Pancake Day is as much about us as it is about the pancakes. We care about Pancake Day because everybody else cares about Pancake Day, because we prefer eating to working, and because it gives us a sense of belonging. 

There are also practical reasons for dressing up something fairly trivial in ritual and tradition. A study published in Psychological Science in 2013 found that rituals before eating makes food taste better. One experiment conducted asked half the participants to break a chocolate bar in half first before eating it, while the other group were instructed to eat it as normal. The researchers found that those who had first broke the chocolate bar in half reported it to be more delicious. This may explain why pancakes taste especially good today, or why turkey does on Christmas Day.

Similarly, while republicans may be left cold by enthusiasm for the marriage of two people among 60 million, those who have already bought their monarchist tickets will derive real pleasure from the pageantry of the show, without any of the stress involved in a real wedding.

Indeed, the modern royal wedding, like the modern Pancake Day, asks very little of the country. It is ridiculous, but, despite the efforts of republicans, largely uncontroversial. In contrast to soul-searching events like Valentine's Day, there are no expectations to live up to, and no hopes to be dashed. 

“Here's How Prince George Is Celebrating Pancake Day,” gushed Elle in 2017. Two faintly ridiculous traditions collide – for those who need something to cheer up the dark days of February, it’s the perfect mix. 

Show Hide image

Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.