To his fans, Boris Johnson is an icon of easy-going, even permissive, bouncy bounteousness. He is seen that way in part because of a strategy he has adopted since his time as a journalist reporting on the European Union. During that time, among numerous other pieces mocking EU bureaucracy and interference in national affairs, he highlighted a sinister EU plot to ban prawn cocktail crisps.
There was no such plot; in reality, British civil servants had mis-read the EU document in question. But that didn’t matter. It enabled Johnson to stand up for freedom of choice — consumer choice — and to make that unbridled consumer choice look English, as opposed to silly bureaucratic rules, which came to look European, stuffy, and uptight. He probably also knew that prawn cocktail crisps were a slap in the face for the metropolitan elite who would — and did, reliably — sneer at prawn cocktails, let alone their reincarnation as a snack food.
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By championing them, and looking very like a man who enjoyed them, Boris Johnson made himself a member of a class — indeed, he almost created the class he came to exemplify. The class in question has acquired an abusive name, and it’s not coincidental that it is the name of a food.
For his foes, Boris Johnson is a gammon, and gammon is a contentious word for the visible class of people characterised not only by being members of the white Anglo-Saxon race, but also by their entitlement, sentimental self-pity, xenophobia, English (not British) patriotism, and, above all, by their constant tendency to fly into a rage that leaves them scarlet in the face. Johnson, apoplectic at the thought of losing prawn crisps, made himself gammon-in-chief. Gammon is the antithesis of a health food, strong in flavour and salt and fat. Gammon is also, relatively, a cheap food. It’s the kind of food that used to leaven a diet mostly composed of tasteless carbohydrates like potato or boiled grains.
Prawn cocktail crisps, unlike gammon, are an ersatz imitation of something you might order in a restaurant. Admittedly, public schoolboys have always eaten more than their fair share of junk food, and there may actually be a natural bond between the working classes and the upper classes: both dislike the interfering, puritanical middle-class who are always trying to curtail other people’s pleasures “for their own good”.
Johnson’s prawn cocktail crisps campaign was also the beginning of the campaign of restorative nostalgia that has brought him to Downing Street. In her new book, Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum pinpoints restorative nostalgia as central to the appeal of the new nationalist right in Poland, Spain and Hungary, and also in the United Kingdom. Drawing on the work of Svetlana Boym, Appelbaum explains that restorative nostalgics do not want to contemplate or learn from the past; they want “the cartoon version of history, and they want to live in it, right now”.
Their narrative goes like this: the nation is no longer great because someone has attacked us, undermined us, sapped our strength. Someone — the immigrants, the foreigners, the elites, or indeed the EU — has perverted the course of history and reduced the nation to a shadow of its former self. The essential identity that it once had has been taken away. This, this election, this referendum, is the last chance to save the country — therefore, it doesn’t matter what lies are told. “The European Union wants to kill our cuppa,” said one Facebook advert during the referendum campaign, in keeping with Johnson’s own hit parade of “Threat to British pink sausages” or “EC cheese row takes the biscuit.” It is essential to restorative nostalgia that it should be constantly enraged by a non-existent threat to a fictional national distinctiveness.
Yet this meticulously created identity has been brought to the brink of collapse by Johnson’s view of food in the light of his new obesity strategy, a strategy that appears to include banning junk-food advertising before 9pm, adding calorie counts to menus, and ensuring easier and greater access to NHS weight-loss programmes. His sudden zeal for weight loss is widely portrayed by his erstwhile supporters not as a rational political choice, but as an emotional response born of fear, even panic; in short, his experience as a Covid-19 victim.
This new war is understood as a sign of weakness: “the weight thing has really spooked him,” said a friend. There’s something in this — it is the kind of jumping to conclusions on insufficient data that has characterised the government’s response to the pandemic, since the link between severe Covid-19 requiring hospitalisation and obesity is more a hypothesis than a proven truth, a point Dominic Lawson makes in The Sunday Times. However, like others, he directs most of his criticism at Johnson for his U-turn on government advice, aligning the new campaign with previous Labour governments. Gordon Brown, he recalls, tried to ban Bogofs (“Buy One, Get One Free”) in 2008, but “it didn’t happen then and it won’t now”. Lawson also points out that Johnson once scoffed at what he saw as the “nanny state”, ridiculing veganism as a crime against cheese-lovers and promising that Brexit would not interrupt supply lines of Mars Bars and crisps.
Johnson was also volubly sceptical about David Cameron’s anti-obesity campaign. The Daily Mail concurred: “Boris is becoming the new Ed Miliband.” (Much more to the taste of the Mail is “McDonald’s for breakfast… and Nando’s for dinner!: Diners celebrate Rishi’s Eat Out To Help Out.) In 2006 Johnson told the Conservative Party Conference: “If I was in charge, I would get rid of Jamie Oliver and tell people to eat what they like.” Backing “pie-pushing mums”, he told the conference that there was “too much pressure” on children to eat healthily: “I say let people eat what they like. Why shouldn’t they push pies through railings?”
From early in his political career, Johnson set out his stall as a man who loves food but doesn’t care what it is. In 2008, he revealed to the Observer that his favourite breakfast was cold spaghetti or leftover birthday cake, though he would make do with a slice of toast and marmalade if necessary. Ingenuously, he said: “I don’t snack apart from a few chocolate croissants mid-morning to keep the wolf from the door.” He must have known that these were fire-eating words. However, and disarmingly, he may have meant them; he went on to say: “I think all food is delicious. I just can’t understand why people go on and on about it, especially restaurant critics. I mean, food is good, isn’t it?” Just what his followers want to hear.
There is something very strange about this account — its complete indifference to choice or quality or even thought. It’s as if eating pleasure depends on never discriminating, as if the only good eating is led entirely by appetite. Is this even remotely plausible? Or is it an uncomfortable image of the people that Johnson believes are hanging on his words? It is commonplace for the ruling class to see the people below them as undiscriminating bellies or mouths, gobbling down whatever rubbish is put in front of them by manufacturers.
Perhaps Johnson himself no longer knows — if he ever did — whether he really likes prawn cocktail crisps or whether it’s what he expects his popular audience to like. He liked what they represent: the idea of eating at random, eating without rules, without an inner censorious voice. And yet he is now in danger of becoming that censor.
Perhaps Johnson thinks he can now rein in that unbridled eating — his own, or that of other prawn cocktail crisp fanciers — by pointing out what everyone has known from the beginning, that this kind of eating is digging your grave with your teeth.