The combination of food and politics can bring seismic change

What do the the French Revolution, the Irish famines of the 19th century, the Boston Tea Party and Gulliver’s Travels all have in common? I suspect you have grasped my point already. They all have food at the centre of their stories. The ancient Lilliputian dispute between big-enders and little-enders (over which end to open a boiled egg), led to, “six rebellions…wherein one Emperor lost his life and another his crown.”
Swift was parodying and satirising the British state of George l. Marie Antoinette told her people that if they had no bread they should eat cake. Down came a tumbling the ancien regime. In Ireland, the enormity of the deaths from hunger and the mass emigration in the wake of the famines fueled the resentment that saw Ireland eventually rise up against Britain and create the sovereign Irish state we know today.  In 1773 in Boston harbour the idea of a tax on tea being levied without the consent of those paying the tax sparked the American revolution.  
Food matters. It matters for reasons so fundamental that I won’t patronise readers by articulating them. Jonathan Swift knew his history and his politics. He knew that food shortages and the cultural importance societies attach to given foods can have profound political consequences.

Rebellion in Russia and India

Food riots helped propagate the Russian revolution. In British India, locally engaged Hindu and Muslim soldiers serving the Crown rebelled in 1857 when they heard that the cartridges for the new Enfield rifle were coated with cow and pig fat, thus offending both religions. Things might not have got out of hand were it not necessary for soldiers to tear open the cartridges with their teeth (hence “bite the bullet”), thus forcing Hindus to eat the fat of cows, which they hold sacred and never to be eaten. Muslims were being asked to put pig fat in their mouths. It is a central canon of Muslim faith that pigs are unclean and unfit for human consumption. Many thousands died before the British restored order, though the event surely marked the beginning of the long, slow, disengagement of Britain from India. As has been so often the case with political turmoil, the matter of food unlocked seething anger at some of the many insensitive behaviours of the colonial power.
And now we have Brexit. Now we have Dr Liam Fox leaping and scurrying about in bovine bowing and scrapping at the feet of Donald Trump. A free trade deal with the USA makes Brexit Tories salivate at its very prospect. It’s more than trade and jobs and Britain’s place in the world for them. For them it represents a fixed link – a permanent bridge – between the very rich and very powerful economic and social conservatives of the American Right and creating a British world of red in tooth and claw capitalism, mindless xenophobia and the rolling back of employment rights and the great triumphs won to build a socially liberal Britain. A free trade deal with the USA is for the hard Right Tories the economic equivalent of the foreign policy and defence super glue of Trident.  

Pandora’s Box

Well, no sooner had Dr Fox broken in to an Atlantic-wide smile on hearing of President Trump’s continuing enthusiasm for a US/UK trade deal (“it’s going to be great”) than Pandora, in the form of her box of appeared on the scene.  
“What about chicken washed in chlorine?” asked Her Majesty’s Fourth Estate, explaining that quite a few people in Britain are uncomfortable with this practice and glad it is illegal under EU law. “A mere detail,’ breezily says Dr Fox (a graduate in medicine from the University of Glasgow; a city that knows a lot about what bad diets can do to humans).
Chlorinated chicken, animals packed full of injected hormones, an endless number of foods sweetened to make them moreish (addictive, some suggest), crops sprayed and treated with chemical cocktails banned in Europe, animals kept in conditions often over-crowded, or insanitary or simply inhumane. What about genetic engineering or drugs to reduce fat content in meat, or flame retardants in soft drinks, or arsenic-laced chicken, or bread with potassium bromate? Almost all of these practices ae legal in the USA and illegal in the EU. Some will have been made illegal in the UK, independently of the EU.
Do we want to eat food produced using these techniques? Do we want food from animals treated in ways we have long rejected? Do we want our children exposed to all this? Do we want our NHS to have to meet the cost of the consequences?
In my simple way, it seems to me that the Liberal Democrats have a moral duty to lead the fight for keeping the food we eat produced to the very highest standards. We have right on our side and whilst having right on our side we may have found a persuasive way of motivating the public to seek to soften Brexit. Nobody told the parents of Britain that the health of their children could be undermined by leaving the EU. Bring back control surely did not mean giving the American food companies carte blanche to bring in food treated in ways we long ago shunned. It’s not a mere detail Dr Fox. It’s not even a mere trifle. It’s our way of life. It’s our health. It’s our children’s health. It’s the health of the nation.
Did the nation vote out to give away its sovereignty over food standards? Have we cast out Brussels only to be told what we’ll eat by the world’s most powerful food companies?
Who’ll join me in a campaign of letter writing? Will our MPs table questions, sign Early Day Motions, seek adjournment debates, build alliances of farmers and scientists, parents and educationalists, brief the press, challenge Dr Fox and his pals at every turn?

What we stand for

People ask what the Liberal Democrats stand for. Let’s leave them in no doubt that we stand on the side of British people, British families, British farmers, British food producers and British animals.
Oh yes, just one more thing. I’m a Scotsman and the law says Scotch whisky must be at least three years old before being bottled.  American whiskey (I never drink anything with an e in it) need only be a year old. The very idea that we should change the rules that govern the production of the world’s greatest drink to suit Dr Fox and his good old boy buddies makes me reach for a bottle of Islay Mist, or Auchentoshan or Highland Park and pour a large measure of the amber bead.  Or two, or three or more.
Food matters. To the political barricades. Save our food.

* Martin Roche is a member of Canterbury Liberal Democrats

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This entry was posted in News.


  • Simon McGrath 14th Aug '17 - 10:13am

    This must be one of the silliest articles on LDV for ages. The Indian rebellion had nothing to do with food and the rumour that the cartridges had pig and cow fat was an early example of fake news.
    As Liberals we should of course be in favour of a trade deal post Brexit – our economy will need more trade but none of the details have been settled ( negotiations havent started) though reading the list of alleged problems with US food its surely a miracle any Brit survives a holiday in Florida.

  • Personally. I’m a vegetarian so I find these sorts of debates odd. But please tell me where you get the idea that leaving the EU means that food from Europe will cease to exist. After all there Israeli potatoes, runner beans from Kenya and multiple food stuffs from outside of the EU and not from the US on supermarket shelves, this includes meat from places as far flung as New Zealand. I’m pretty certain imports from Europe will continue. Having said that canned food, frozen food, processed food and ready meals are pumped full of sugar, stabilisers. preservatives and various additives in Britain and Europe as well. So it’s not like everything currently on offer is that awesome either or that trustworthy. After all recent scandals suggest it took a whole lot of unidentified critters to make various domestic fritters.

  • John Littler 14th Aug '17 - 11:11am

    There are a lot of polls around designed to ask questions that mislead on brexit. After a year of doing nothing effective, there is a get on with something factor, but on the main issues, it is 52-54% for Remain on the same question as the stupid vote, 54% for the SM and a massive 69% for the Customs Union which is over 2-1. Yet the Tories ignore that and plough on towards a free trade fantasy.

    I’d vote to stay in the single market. I’m in favour of the single market,” Boris Johnson.

    “Only a madman would actually leave the [single] market,” Owen Paterson.

    “Increasingly, the Norway model looks best for the UK,” Arron Banks.

    “Absolutely no one is talking about threatening our place in the single market,” Daniel Hannan.

    They are …fantasists and have grossly mislead the public. Any suggesting that this was a proper informed democratic process or that any detail was decided upon is just exploitation and mockery.

  • If Trump and his cronies get their way in a “Great” trade deal between the USA and Britain, which they probably will if the British ministers responsible are desperate to make deals following a disastrous BREXIT, you can bet that Britain will have to accept chicken, pork and beef products produced in inhumane (and unhygenic) factory-farmed and antibiotic laden conditions that would be totally unacceptable in British farming. But don’t expect them to allow entry of British beef, which is banned in the USA.

  • Sue Sutherland 14th Aug '17 - 1:18pm

    I think it’s agreed now that Marie Antoinette didn’t utter those famous words. Fake news again I’m afraid. Alfred the Great probably didn’t burn the cakes either. However, I enjoyed your rampage through food Martin but was surprised you didn’t mention the great Liberal campaign to repeal the Corn Laws or the issue of food poverty we have here in 2017. For me, that’s the issue I feel outrage about, but I hope you’re right and chlorinated chicken defeat Brexit.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Aug '17 - 2:17pm

    Why boil an egg? You cannot see through the shell to judge when it is cooked.

  • Do you want your loved ones to eat soufflé at every meal and croissant ?

  • David Allen 14th Aug '17 - 5:16pm

    This reminds me of Upton Sinclair:

    “The Jungle is a 1906 novel written by the American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair (1878–1968).[1] Sinclair wrote the novel to portray the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrialized cities.[2] However, most readers were more concerned with his exposure of health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry during the early 20th century, greatly contributing to a public outcry which led to reforms including the Meat Inspection Act. Sinclair famously said of the public reaction ‘I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.’ ”

    So yes, let’s learn from Sinclair’s experience, and aim for the stomach, as well as the heart and the head. Whatever it takes to persuade the stubborn British that Brexit is an awful idea!

  • Mark Seaman 14th Aug '17 - 5:37pm

    The idea that consumers will be FORCED to buy any product despite legitimate concerns iro hygiene and/or animal welfare is such dribbling nonsense that it really makes me worry about what has happened to the party that I campaigned for for several years 🙁

  • The idea we may buy food in ignorance is the issue, Mark. Unless it’s labelled not only with its country of origin but shoppers are aware how it was produced.

    Simon, my holiday in Florida convinced me US food is horrible: ‘cheesecake’ that was gloopy stuff on top of artificial stuff; ‘farm spread’ that had never seen a cow; brightly coloured breakfast cereals that were all E numbers… and all round us, obesity to a shocking degree.
    I’m not going to be in favour of trade deals that undermine domestic producers and put pressure on our government to reduce standards here so they can compete.
    The US wants to sell to us, not buy from us.

    Glenn, your logic is that if food isn’t all our pure quality in Europe, and because unscrupulous people sometimes cut corners/breach regulations, it’s ok to import rubbish from elsewhere as well?
    I’d rather we blocked the rubbish, have stringent checks to prevent the scandals, and worked to improve the local stuff.

  • Cassie B.
    No my logic is look at a label on tin or pre packed food from anywhere. They’re all pumped full of rubbish. This is really an argument over what rubbish they’re pumped full of according to rules which suit food production in a particular country or region. America probably bans some additives commonly used elsewhere, Australia has all kinds of rules and so on. That’s my main point .

  • P.S
    TTIP was being negotiated through the EU and would have loosened standards anyway. But, really this comes down to an utterance by Liam Fox and I’m pretty sure the British Farming industry would have something to say. As I said ‘m a vegetarian and the nearest I get to any of this stuff is the occasional veggie burger, rare tin of beans and the odd Pizza. If you saw how meat was produced you would not touch it and that’s before you get to mechanically reclaimed products or the ethics involved.

  • Things might not have got out of hand were it not necessary for soldiers to tear open the cartridges with their teeth (hence “bite the bullet”),

    That’s not even what the idiom ‘bite the bullet’ means nowadays!

    To ‘bite the bullet’ is to steel oneself to do something unpleasant, difficult and painful. It comes from the early days of field surgery, before anaesthetics, where the patient would be given a bullet to bite down on as their limbs were lopped off.

    It has nothing to do with tearing open cartridges!

  • The US wants to sell to us, not buy from us

    That’s good, because we want to buy from them — Californian wine without the EU common external tariff which exists to favour protectionist French vinyards, for example.

  • In 1773 in Boston harbour the idea of a tax on tea being levied without the consent of those paying the tax sparked the American revolution

    It wasn’t the levying of a tax on tea that was the problem there, it was the removal of a tax, whihc would hit the profits of smugglers who made their money undercutting the official, taxed imports.

    The equivalent would be those who make their money bringing thousands packets of fags across the channel and selling them, protesting against the abolition of tobacco duty.

  • What about genetic engineering or drugs to reduce fat content in meat

    Sounds great to me!

  • I never drink anything with an e in it

    Well, you’re missing out, then: Irish whiskey, which includes the ‘e’ in every bottle, is, by virtue of being triple-distilled, much smoother and nicer than all but the very most expensive scotch.

  • David Pocock 16th Aug '17 - 1:33pm

    Shame this didn’t hold true when soviets were starving their people.

    I dare say by the time you get to food shortages it is a sign that things are very wrong with your country. I remember being told once that the first sign of a nation in decline is the state of the roads.

    In all the examples you give there were a lot of other factors at play. Would the French revolution have happened without liberalism? Would the Russian revolution without Marx? Who knows.

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