Burgergate, or Britain’s Lack of Relish for Politicians

Public scepticism in politicians is causing a shift away from mainstream politics.

George Osborne, who some international readers may dimly recall is the chancellor of the exchequer of the United Kingdom, works very long hours. It may be that you absolutely loathe his policies of “austerity”, which seek to reduce the country’s debt built up in the 1990s when the economy was booming. It may be that you despise every Conservative Party policy in every other sphere, but I am sure you will agree with me that the chancellor of the exchequer has a tough job and a lot to do. You will probably also agree that, in addition to doing his difficult job, the chancellor needs to eat and drink.

Of Burgers and Men

If you’re with me on the above, it may be slightly surprising to international readers of a sane disposition that there was recently a major political controversy in the UK (you know the kind: 24-hour channels breaking newsflashes, discussion pieces in learned newspapers and that most modern of political hurricanes, the Twitter-storm) when Chancellor Osborne published a photograph of himself working late one night, on the eve of a major government spending review, eating a hamburger.

Yes, you read that correctly. The chancellor, a high-born man not short of a couple of pounds sterling in his own right, was not greedily tucking into smoked salmon and caviar as he slashed the nation’s spending, nor was he quaffing champagne or fine whiskey in the manner of many great leaders before him. No, our humble chancellor was gently munching that most traditional, classless of late-night snacks: the burger.

But this was no ordinary burger according to the “outcry” that followed. It was a “boutique”, “posh”, “upmarket” burger from a local restaurant called Byron Burgers, costing somewhere north of £6.75 or perhaps a bit more depending upon the choice of toppings. It was, in short, the kind of burger which probably boasts organic meat, or 100% beef, or some other modern fad. The kind of burger – wait for it – that only “well off” people can eat. And therein (excuse the pun) lies people’s real beef with the chancellor. The perfect metaphor had been found to show up a wealthy man cutting back public services; he munches on an expensive burger, fuelled by this luxury as he ruthlessly cuts public sector pay.

One outraged pensioner summed it up, writing into Sky News to complain about the whole sorry affair, alleging that this Byronic act was the very height of insensitivity: “Being a not so well-off pensioner, I feel I must comment on all those photos of an out of touch chancellor stuffing himself with a £10 burger. He's obviously ignorant to the fact that most pensioners have to spread £10 over five meals.”

Does this follow? Might it not be equally true that the chancellor was fully cognisant of the terrible plight of some of Britain’s poorest folk, but just not consider that he needed personally to reflect their plight in his own public eating habits? Would it not have been equally distasteful for the chancellor to consume a cheap, McDonalds burger as a “token gesture” in public, before nipping home for a more expensive meal? At least he was honest about his habits. Was it ignorant of him to be drinking Diet Coke too? After all, he could have bought a cheaper, own brand Cola from a local supermarket.

Distaste for Politics

There is a significant point here for the way that we have come to view our politicians in Britain. For decades, our prime minister and chancellor, not to mention other MPs, were there to lead us fearlessly. Great people for Great Britain. It was fine for Winston Churchill to smoke his fat cigar and swig brandy as he pleased. Frankly, it was reassuring. And who would dream of begrudging Margaret Thatcher a glass of fine wine or a decent meal after a hard day rescuing the British economy? A woman’s got to eat! Nowadays, the public view is not to want much from our politicians other than the chance to see them having a truly miserable time.

This logic extends beyond the burger. We are about to embark upon what we call August “silly season”, that time of year when the tabloid press are desperately short of real news stories. Soon enough, similar stories will surface about where MPs and their families are holidaying. Here’s my confident prediction: unless they are taking their vacation in a really nasty, cheap resort with minimal provisions and no creature comforts, they will all be written off as “insensitive”, “ignorant” and “out of touch”. A two week family holiday to Spain? Parasites! 

There is no doubt that the expenses scandal of 2010, where it became clear that many MPs had abused the generous “expenses” system in place, demolished trust in politicians. Some MPs put colour TVs and massage sofas on the taxpayer’s bill; one even claimed back a duck — yes, a duck house: a house for his ducks. Some went to jail, others rode out the storm, but the damage remains. Now, combined with the government’s cost-cutting policies and the perception of major cuts taking place, there is a very potent anti-politician sentiment in the UK and a feeling that they have not been made to suffer enough. All of the UK’s most popular political figures – like Boris Johnson (mayor of London) and Nigel Farage (leader of the UK Independence Party) – are not MPs, and are not sitting in parliament.

The Bill

There are three very dangerous effects of all this. First, it means that very few people other than political obssessives, who have always worked in Westminster or local government, want to be politicians anymore. Many professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, business people) who would once have been attracted to public service in this way, now eschew the idea. Why would you risk a profession where you will be paid less than your current salary to be ridiculed for eating a £7 beefburger? In an average London law firm, the late-night takeaway orders will be vast elaborate buffets and you can holiday wherever you wish, probably a few times a year. But if we do not attract our legislators from the strata of normal professional life rather than political geeks, is there not a risk that our democracy will be even more out of touch?

Secondly, public scepticism in politicians is causing a shift away from mainstream politics. Anti-politics politicians – usually from extreme fringes of the Right or Left – reap the benefits of a reaction against members of parliament. When the moderates from the establishment parties are all tarred with the same Westminster brush, the eccentrics become the flavour of the day. It’s easier to have the common touch when you’re just a member of the public. This is unfair: most MPs of the traditional three parties (Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat) are hardworking and capable; most came into politics to do good. It is probably fair to say that their intentions are more honest, pragmatic and safe than those of the extreme parties.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is disappointing to see this country disproportionately obsess over trivia and personality. Frankly, who cares what the chancellor eats, provided his policies make sense? Would it matter if the environment secretary splashed his savings on a summer holiday superyacht if he had also pushed through politics to slash pollution or CO2 emissions? Are we seriously more concerned about where the leader of the opposition lives, or what his wife wears to an engagement, than we are about his plans to reduce poverty? The focus on the burger, or the summer holiday, or any other aspect of the private person, is titillating, just like reality TV. But just like reality TV, it is a distraction from the real issues that matter.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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