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.