The death of a snack bar.

Last Monday evening as I was walking to the Tube I saw a bit of a commotion on nearby Clapham Common.  There was smoke and there was a fire engine.  A closer look revealed that the smoke was coming from the mobile snack bar on Windmill Drive.  As I cycled past it on the following morning, it was just a tangled mess.  By yesterday it had gone completely.

This snack bar was something of a local institution.  There would usually be a knot of people chatting nearby, with an assortment of vans, lorries, police cars and the occasional ambulance parked nearby.  The people were almost all white and working class (by which I mean the real thing, and not simple “white and poor” as some rather annoying bureaucrats have taken to using the expression) and male, the occasional police woman excepted.  It was a favourite spot when such workers had a few minutes to kill.

And it did nothing to challenge prejudices about white working class people.  Its fare was greasy.  I don’t know what its coffee was like, but I saw no espresso machine as I walked by.  It all looked pretty disgusting.  Which makes it very easy for nice middle class people like me to sneer at it.  But working class people are a beleaguered bunch, looked down on by so many – I don’t begrudge them their moment of relaxation.  Besides my relationship with disgusting food is not entirely innocent – though I find it hard to forgive disgusting coffee.

But the fare clearly wasn’t healthy, and unhealthy eating is one of the things that causes policy types angst – as demonstrated by a series of seminars Food can be the best medicine held by the Reform think tank – trying to emphasize the positive potential of diet, as well as decrying the effect of poor choices.  This, along with harangues on the subject of smoking and drinking, is one of the forces which is laying siege to the working classes.  In doing so, it raises some challenges to modern liberal thinking.

On the one hand liberals like to emphasise choice, freedom and empowerment – traditionally as values in their own right, more recently based on evidence that these things are key to overall wellbeing.  On the other hand there is a focus on outcomes and the use of evidence based policy formulations, which tend to prescribe the same solution for everybody.  If we make people free, they will choose different things.  A lot of these choices will be for things we consider to be inadvisable.  And it will often be that different groups of people will tend to make different choices some being less to our taste than others.  But we have to accept that people are by and large responsible for the consequences of their bad choices – and not governments or wicked multinationals or anybody else.  It’s an awkward fact that most people who make unhealthy choices are perfectly well informed about the consequences – studies have shown this for smoking.

The NHS gives some a particularly pernicious line of reasoning.  It’s that since the NHS is funded by taxpayers in general, it gives the public the right to force people to make better choices (or at least to bully people) so as to reduce NHS costs.  But the unhealthy pay their taxes too – and if they drink and smoke, they pay a pretty decent whack too (tobacco tax revenues easily pay for the additional NHS costs associated with smoking, for example).  Perhaps hot pasties and sausage rolls should not be exempt from VAT, but when all’s said and done I think we tax unhealthy lifestyles enough.

We (by which I mean the policymaking middle class elite) should just lighten up.  Who knows, if we respected the choices people make with better grace, it might just help people to gain that extra confidence to take control of their lives and make better choices.

So I hope that unhealthy snack bar on Windmill Drive returns, as it has after a previous fire.

 

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5 Responses to The death of a snack bar.

  1. Richard G says:

    Do you believe that smokers have been given enough respect and freedom over the last 20 years?

    • Matthew says:

      Smoking is a bit more complicated because the smoke is unpleasant and indeed unhealthy to others nearby, and too many smokers are too deeply into their habit to give this consideration. I think they are taxed enough or even too much – though I am sympathetic to indoor smoking bans.

      But overall I probably don’t think smokers get enough respect – though more of them do need to appreciate just how unpleasant their habit is to bystanders. Tobacco companies, though, do make my flesh creep a bit.

  2. Richard G says:

    With the creepiness of tobacco companies, you’ve touched on a difference I think is important – freedom for individuals and freedom for companies. The nature of free enterprise makes it possible for unscrupulous companies to out-compete scrupulous ones. It is very rare that companies are able to make sufficient public advantage from moral stands. The only examples which comes to mind immediately are the fair trade system mostly for coffee and free range eggs, and even then I think most people go for what’s cheapest on the supermarket shelf.

    I worked in Shell while boycotts where going on. We in Shell-Mex House on the Strand weren’t informed about what was going on in South Africa or Nigeria, not even in the little news sheets the PR department would circulate every now and again. Nor did we want to ask questions, in case it did bad things to our careers. As a result we were just as ignorant as the general public, expect we felt a sense of blind loyalty to the company which gave us our bread. All the people I met when I was there seemed to be nice enough, not sinister baddies. And yet I suspect that Shell did and do bad things. Individuals in them seem to be fine, but companies taken as a whole it seem to be Machiavellian. I don’t really understand it.

    We need a massive change in culture, whereby people feel that shopping is a statement of principle, or people feel they are responsible for the ethics of the companies they work for. Otherwise we need companies to be regulated, by the government I suppose.

    Somehow freedom of the individual is a different matter. Am I a liberal?

    • Matthew says:

      It’s one of life’s paradoxes that organisations made up of decent people can do unspeakable things. Not just companies: governments, political parties, churches, armies, etc. As members of the public we just have to try and hold them to account. Ultimately such organisations are guided by a the sense of morality of those within. the cost of making the wrong call needs to be higher, though.

      But some companies just have to be pushed into a tighter and tighter corner by the process of regulation – which is what is happening to the tobacco industry. Their own moral weakness makes it difficult for them to resist the process.

      It will be interesting to see what happens to Formula 1 after the Bahrain fiasco. Their message seems to be “we follow money, not values”.

  3. Matthew says:

    On Monday the bar reopened in a rather smaller but tidier mobile kiosk, and the customers are coming back.

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