So last week our Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, made the apparently fatal triple mistake of working late, eating junk food, and failing to keep it a secret. Our spin-doctors and spooks were seemingly incapable of keeping such a heinous crime from the front pages of national newspapers who flame-grilled Osborne about his ‘sham-burger’.
As I sat reading the newspapers the next day several questions sprang to mind. My first inevitably was a flippant ‘who cares?’ swiftly followed by a more philosophical ‘why do we care?’ and finished off with a belt-busting ‘should we care?’ Why are we teasing the fact that he allegedly “snubbed ten McDonalds” in favour of a Byron Burger (who, in my opinion undermine the very concept of a burger by making it difficult to put in your mouth in one go)? You can be certain that had he chosen something from the famous Golden Arches he’d have been accused of encouraging Britain’s ‘obesity epidemic’.
Is it because we are mocking the Chancellor’s apparent attempt to look like he is down to earth? In which case, are we really sure this was his intention, rather than just showing that he was working hard? Do we imagine that people who are labelled ‘posh’ never eat anything other than oysters and caviar, and if so what does this say about our own prejudices? I don’t think George Osborne has ever tried to deny his background. Yes, he changed his name from Gideon, but wouldn’t you? Yes he said “we’re all in this together” but this is a statement of fact, people across the board have been hit by the recession – not always via direct tax hikes and not always as much as we would like – but very few people have escaped completely un-wounded.
In-keeping with the logic of the playground bully, who taunts the school rugby captain about his inability to swim, the media is attempting to humiliate him for something he is not, and should not feel, humiliated about. It certainly frustrates me, as a comprehensive-educated working-class northerner, that people like me are under-represented in the upper echelons of society and I think that Cameron has missed a trick by not making his cabinet more reflective of this concern. But I’m not going to begrudge George his burger and fries if he is the best man for the job. Nor do I care if he wants to drink champagne on a yacht, just as I don’t mind if George Galloway loves fine cigars. So perhaps we care because of the taxpayer’s burden of this ‘whopping £9.70’ meal? Well, we can argue until the cows come home about MPs expenses, but most private companies would allow an employee to spend up to £10 on a meal required during work. What you want to eat is your own business. Anybody who has stopped at a service station during a long drive between meetings can tell you that a tenner doesn’t go far.
Even the trusty late night kebab and chips (not forgetting lashings of free chilli sauce) racks up the coins these days, whilst you’ll struggle to find an oil-sodden pizza for under six quid. In the circumstance, I don’t think many people within London would consider a £6.95 burger to be extortionate or uncommon. One of the issues is that I fear far too many people think being a politician doesn’t count as a proper job and shouldn’t require such expenses. I guess they think the Chancellor and his colleagues don’t work hard enough to deserve it, despite still sitting in their offices beyond 10pm when a civil servant would be calculating his or her overtime. Why do they think this when most of the population has no direct experience of an MP’s working life?
Those who have worked alongside MPs and have seen them toiling in what is becoming an increasingly thankless task, wouldn’t begrudge Osborne his classic 6-ouncer. Could it be that they get this idea from the very same media that brings the offending piece of meat to our attention? (The burger, not Osborne). The real scandal is not with what our Chancellor chooses to fill his stomach, but with what our newspapers choose to fill their pages. Whilst people risk their lives fighting for freedom in the Middle East and one of history’s major whistleblowers runs around the world seeking a safe haven after exposing state surveillance, we use our liberty to bring attention to a half-eaten breadbun perched on a piece of polystyrene.
Is it any wonder that people are turned off by our dumbed-down politics and can’t be bothered to walk to their nearest polling booths when all we can tell them about those running the country is their favourite late night snack?
For what it’s worth, the best response came from Osborne’s food-loving colleague Eric Pickles, who tweeted a photo of himself working hard whilst eating salad, a sight once considered unlikely enough for Ladbrokes to offer odds of 3/1 on him being pictured doing so at the last Party conference. In one move he was able to show his contempt for the media circus surrounding the issue whilst also proving down-to-earth enough to laugh at himself. Of course Osborne tried to do the same on breakfast TV the next morning, but it seems that some people can never win!