Commonplace, Vol 2, Issue 1

In which the writer examines conservative principles concerning food for the poor, swears a lot, and goes full anarchist.

Hello! Welcome to Volume 2. Unlike Gentle Decline, which has just hit its second volume after several years, Commonplace will move to a new volume with each year. I don’t know if that’s meaningful to anyone but me, but I like it. I’m less keen on the main topic of discussion in this issue, but as someone writing about food, and seeing more of what’s going on in the UK, I need to do some growling about capitalism, Victorian morality, and how conservatives are mindbogglingly, routinely, banally evil.

This issue gets moderately profane in places. I know I already said that in the sub-header, but having read through before hitting publish, I felt it needed saying again. If that’s an issue for you, I suggest you see what I’m swearing about. Also, to be fair, I’m Irish, and it’s grammar and punctuation for me, not profanity.

[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food and food history. Drew, who needs to eat as well as ramble and swear, has a Patreon page at Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit (still constrained by unemployment), and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]

Anyone who’s on Twitter at the moment, and for the last year or so, has seen the stuff that’s been going on with regard to school lunches in the UK. Under normal circumstances, many schools in the UK serve food at lunchtime.

This has been the case in some form since the Edwardian era, but it really took off in 1947, when the post-war government paid for “school dinners” for all children, legally mandated to be of a certain standard. There was some degree of economising on this, as was inevitable when rationing was still in place, but the food was basically pretty decent, and it gave rise to what’s by now a folk memory in the UK of specific easy-and-cheap-to-mass-produce dishes for kids. Spotted dick and treacle sponge pudding are notable examples of this.

Not all children got free meals, only those from low income families, with others having to pay (usually just the cost of ingredients, which wasn’t huge), but the school dinner was very definitely a huge material support for poorer families. In the 1980s, the Thatcher governments changed this, removing the entitlement to free food from thousands of families. This was after they had ended a free school milk program in the 1970s, which induced uproar. They also moved the provision of meals to competitive tender (hitherto, it seems, school cooks had been employees of the school, and food was sourced directly through each school). The completely inevitable result of this was a drop in quality as providers cut costs, and by 1999 a study showed that children on school meals were getting poorer nutrition than during wartime rationing.

Jamie Oliver launched a campaign to reform school food in around 2004. While he was bashed from various directions about his approach and the food he wanted to serve, and generally used as target practice by various media, it did seem to have a definite impact. The food served changed away from deep-fried-everything (where everything was chips and chicken nuggets) plus pizza to somewhat healthier meals, which almost certainly did not have the same profit margin. It also led, eventually, to a piece of 2014 legislation called the Requirements for School Food Regulations, and that seems to be what’s currently in force.

Now, fast forward to 2020, when the pandemic meant that for some stretches of time, children who were otherwise dependent on school meals were not in school. The Tory government’s concern with this was absolutely minimal, and various ministers, MPs and supporters followed a strategy of minimising the issue, attacking the people who depended on it for poor parenting and budgeting, and generally straight-up denying food to poorer kids. This continued until a footballer called Marcus Rashford stepped in and used his fame as a lever to make the government change their policy. Eventually, they started providing either meals or vouchers, to the value of £30 per child per week. Rashford is from an area of Manchester called Wythenshawe, which was notably described by the New York Times as an “extreme pocket of social deprivation and alienation”, so we can assume he has some direct idea of what was happening.

This week, however, there was another change in approach, and a large number of schools across the UK started providing boxes of food rather than the vouchers or meals. Pictures of these started appearing on Twitter this week as parents got the boxes, looked in, and went, with considerable justification, “where’s the rest of it?”.

Here’s one example, and it’s not the worst I have seen:

In my head, even the most disconnected, living-on-delivery-food-in-the-absence-of-restaurants, don’t-know-how-to-cook conservative politician in the world can see that that is not £30 worth of food (but see below). Jack Monroe and others have costed it out and found that it’s about £5, and it’d be a pretty poorly-shopped use of £5 at that.

Now, it’s obvious that there has been (excuse the upcoming profanity, which re-occurs throughout the rest of the issue) a complete fucking failure at many levels there. The medieval poor getting the leftovers at the back gate of the manor had better than this. And in this specific instance, it’s actually hard to pick out who’s responsible. Is it the Tory government? Is it whatever company they’ve brought in to handle this? Is it the schools who apparently have the work of packing and distributing this?

Someone, at some stage, made a calculation and essentially went “fuck it, they can get along on some scraps”. For what it’s worth, I doubt it was the schools - they can see what’s going into the boxes, and they have to know in a direct manner that it’s not enough, but they also have to distribute what they have. It’s the company or it’s the Tories, and it’s probably both in cooperation.

So, I want to ask, what drives these people to think that taking food away from people who need it is ok? What gives them the brass ones to stand up in the House of Commons and defend it? What framework of thinking is here? It can’t be as simple as “conservatives are inherently fucking evil”, or at least I hope it can’t.

I see three factors going in: the Victorian concept of the “deserving poor”, the degree of inequality in the UK, and the conservative touchstone of “it doesn’t affect me”.

It’s not quite fair to blame the concept of the deserving poor on the Victorians; it goes back to Tudor England. And it’s not that it doesn’t occur in non-Anglophone cultures, but it’s definitely not as prevalent. The idea is that there are two kinds of poor people: those who are there by no fault of their own (children, people with physical or mental difficulties or illnesses, certain kinds of widow, elderly people who worked when they were younger, and veterans of conflicts, particularly those who were injured), and those who could work and earn money “if they wanted”, but will take handouts instead because that’s easier. The Victorians were the ones who really ramped this concept up, though, and connected it with the idea of the “angel in the house”; the notion that the public sphere was for men only, and that women should remain in private. This isn’t quite the strict segregation of purdah, but it was still pretty restrictive; respectable women couldn’t really appear in public without a safe male escort, usually a father, brother or husband. The one way in which women were allowed to interact with the public sphere was in providing charity, but only for the deserving poor. So the concept became hugely important, and in order for there to be deserving poor that the respectable womenfolk could minister to, there needed to be undeserving poor that could be pointed to as the counter-examples.

The modern, educated, sensible person (conservatives excepted; I’ll deal with them later) can look at this and go “Ok, so apart from about 0.01% of people who might be trying to pull a fast one and get some small amount of money or food for nothing, there are no undeserving poor, right? Nobody wants to be poor.” The Victorians needed there to be visible undeserving poor, though, so they set their definitions in accordance. Poor mental health, in particular, was something they just didn’t recognise, until such time as it became “madness”, at which point the poor unfortunates in question magically became deserving, but were also locked up in asylums or workhouses. And then those definitions kind of got stuck; the concept is still there, and it’s reinforced through media portrayals of “welfare queens” and “benefit scroungers”.

The visibility is also important, though, so let me deviate into a point 1A here: our concept of poverty is firmly rooted in images from no later than the second world war. In particular: bare feet, grubby faces, torn clothing, tumble-down shacks and shanty-towns. Because this form of poverty still exists in the third world, and we see it in the media, the people who are shod, washed, wearing relatively new clothes, and not seen in proximity to makeshift buildings are deemed “not that poor”. The fact that the shoes can cost less than a meal, the clothes are new only because they’re cheap new purchases after the last cheap purchases wore out, their faces are clean because access to running water and/or facewipes is easier now, and most of the very poor pack up their tents and sleeping bags during the day is utterly lost on many of us. And low-level social housing usually isn’t falling apart, even if it’s in poor repair inside, although that’s not necessarily true in the US. So we don’t “see” poverty any more.

(Also, the shoes costing less than a meal: that is a historical anomaly of the highest order. It makes no sense in anything other than an absolutely murderous version of capitalism.)

This does lead me into point 2, though: inequality. WW2 rationing, the conditions which gave rise to the widely remembered UK school lunch, affected everyone. Circumventing the rationing, while it definitely happened, was not the kind of thing you could get away with socially, and would have been utterly disastrous for most public figures. Everyone was a bit short on food, and that meant that - nearly uniquely - the post-war politicians had some concept of what it was like to be hungry.

The chances of any member of the House of Commons at this point having gone a day hungry in their lives is small. The chances of any member of the Tory side of the house having done so must approach zero. They have no experience of poverty, no contact with it, and, importantly, no visibility on it. Literally the only visibly poor people they see are the homeless, and I’d bet that they see few enough of those. The gulf between rich and poor in the UK is vast, and the politicians are almost by definition on the rich side of that.

The median income in the UK was £29,600, and there were 14 million people living below the poverty line (60% of the median). Meantime, the basic salary of an MP is £81,932, and a lot of them get extra money for various duties. Plus they can and do claim mad levels of expenses. Just money, though, is a poor way to measure someone’s level of financial security, and I can guarantee that the Members of Parliament will never be hungry under the current system. The vast majority of them come from upper middle class and upper class backgrounds, so they almost certainly also own land and/or have investment income of some kind.

So with the best will in the world, these people have no idea what food costs for poor people. There’s a fair chance that they don’t have any idea what they spend on food themselves, because apparently there are income levels out there where you can just ignore that. So it’s possible that they saw some indication of how much food was going in those boxes and went “sure, that’s probably about £30”. Or indeed, they originally said “sure, £30 will feed someone for a week” (which, with a bit of care, it will) - but they really hadn’t any idea of their own if that was true or not.

The companies that they hire - because having government people do government work is un-Tory - to manage this (and many, many other projects) do know how much food costs. They probably know it down to the penny. But because limited companies exist to shield individuals from the consequences of their actions, they can quite deliberately fuck people over and say “it wasn’t me, it was the company, I’m just doing my job”.

Which, of course, leads into what I think is really the major cause: conservatives do not care about anyone but themselves (and sometimes, but not always, their families). They will sometimes act very strongly in support of some wider cause, but only when that cause benefits them. That is, LGBT conservatives will usually support LGBT rights. Jewish conservatives will oppose anti-Semitism. Conservatives who own horses will support fox-hunting. Conservatives who are landlords will oppose rent control. If they are not a member of the affected group, then they can be bargained into supporting it, but they’ll abandon the cause as soon as is convenient.

To be quite honest, I am moving toward a mental shorthand wherein, when someone is a conservative, I assume they’re some sort of sociopath. It stops me from thinking of them as having empathy or understanding of other people as, well, people.

But anyway: conservatives are rarely poor. Conservative politicians are never poor. Therefore, conservatives do not give a damn about the poor. So denying them food is pretty nearly completely meaningless to them. When they can combine that with the concept of the deserving poor (and the misconception that they never “see” poor people), and their own lack of understanding of how much food actually costs, you get this kind of mess. And because they don’t understand, don’t care, and really think that some poor people shouldn’t get food… You get the kind of thing where they will stand up on their hind legs in public and defend the decisions.

There is only one solution to the problem of school lunches in the UK, and that is to get the Conservative party out of power, and then never, ever let them back in. They are genuinely unsuitable for administration.

There is a reader out there somewhere, possibly only in my imagination, who is going “But Drew, you live in Ireland. What business of yours is it what the UK does?”. There are a few points to be made here, the first one of which is that when someone is making such an utter mess in an area where you have expertise, you have a duty to point it out. The second is that Ireland is now separate from the UK, but the Victorians ruled Ireland as well, and indeed, so did the Edwardians. This is, in part, my history as well, and not acknowledging that is nonsense. And the third is that the UK has it only land border with the Republic of Ireland, so the shit that the UK administration pulls or tries to pull often has a impact here, not least because some of our Tory-lite politicians get ideas from there.

Anyway. This issue has been brought to you by a brand new lockdown, some snow and good solid cold, sending dragons in Flight Rising, and my ever-increasing anarchist tendencies. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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