Anna Soubry’s ill-founded speech about obesity was typical of politicians refusing to engage their brains
It’s a funny thing, but when you turn on your radio or television and hear someone say something breathtakingly ill-researched and insulting, you can almost tell straight away that the speaker is a Tory politician. Obviously, not everybody responsible for obtuse and patronising nonsense comes from that kind of background but that is where the propensity lies.
Who should we blame for this? In my experience, which includes many hours listening to Radio 4 in the kitchen, the people most likely to deliver unfounded claims or accusations backed by comically incomplete evidence, almost always come from families where it was considered quite normal to sit round a table for a meal they call “kitchen supper”, apparently a 25-course banquet served by bewigged footmen and consumed by flickering candlelight, at which it is customary for the participants to compete to see who can say the most preposterously offensive thing. The tragic result is that at least one in three, if not more, Tory politicians is now at risk of making a complete arse of themselves on a regular basis, with the obvious risk that even their most abject pronouncements may influence public policy.
Although this idiocy epidemic is, admittedly, a growing problem afflicting all political parties, there is no doubting its alarming prevalence in the Tory cabinet. It is becoming routine, in fact, to see a Tory minister rush out and, instead of constructing a conventional argument, backed by at least some research, emit a succession of outlandish assertions and anecdotes whose authority, if any, is most likely to rest on the speaker’s conviction of his or her superior understanding.
Thus, in her already celebrated speech to the food and drink industry, the public health minister, Anna Soubry, began with some remarks about fat people she had seen when out and about. “When I walk around my constituency, you can almost tell somebody’s background by their weight,” she said. “Obviously not everybody who is overweight comes from a deprived background but that is where the propensity lies.”
Leave aside the catastrophic condescension, and the thought of Ms Soubry roaming round Broxtowe with a pair of mental calipers, the better to establish social class by BMI (compared with which hobby Gladstone’s prostitute-rescuing missions sound almost normal) and what is most remarkable about this observation is the speaker’s conviction that it would advance her argument.
Of much less importance, it appears, were numbers, or authorities even greater than herself, to make the case that “primary responsibility lies with the individual”. Anyone serious about public health, you gathered, would be satisfied with such insights into proletarian life as have, during her career as a barrister and MP, been granted to Ms Soubry. “What they don’t do is actually sit down and share a meal around the table,” she disclosed to stunned food and drink operatives, convinced until that moment that every Quaver is eaten with a knife and fork. “There are houses where they don’t have dining tables,” the minister persisted. “They will sit in front of the telly and eat.”
Before dismissing outright Ms Soubry’s considered response to this depravity, we cannot, of course, rule out the possibility that, taking on the mantle of Henry Mayhew, the minister has indeed followed the fatties, or “them”, to use the technical term, back to table-less tenements that have never seen a John Lewis linen-feel napkin, or to offices where slovenly workers indulge in the “disgusting” – she finds – habit of eating at their desks. But in the intellectual climate of the current Tory cabinet she could be excused for thinking such investigations a complete waste of effort.
Given current trends in ministerial evidence, Soubry’s allusions to living people she has definitely heard about may soon come to look, along with Osborne’s analysis of lowered festoon blinds, positively scholarly. Before long, it may be enough for a minister to validate a policy that it came highly recommended in a vision, in the bottom of a teacup or, like the mayor of London last week, via an epiphany in his back garden. Noting the thick snow on a flowerpot, the putative Tory leader wondered if we have entered a “mini ice age“.
True, standing on giants’ shoulders, Boris Johnson’s snub to the scientific establishment owes much to an earlier challenge from the Daily Mail columnist Tom Utley, who famously deduced the impossibility of rising sea levels from the way ice behaves in his gin and tonic. But most columnists can only dream of the freedom to create mischief, some of it lasting, that is still enjoyed by the bolder Conservative politician, unshackled by readers’ editors, corrections columns or vestigial social conditioning.
There has been, for example, neither correction nor explanation from Maria Miller, who last autumn insisted that the abortion law needed changing, “to reflect the way science has moved on”. Though she was immediately challenged, media attention soon wandered to Jeremy Hunt’s claim that “the evidence” actually indicated a limit of 12 weeks, and by the time a new BMJ study had formally undermined Miller’s version, there were fresh errata to correct, from waffle about elite sport and gay marriage to more specific claims, such as Eric Pickles’s definition of all library campaigners as “luvvies”, or Nadine Dorries’s (erroneous) belief that her abortion debates had featured in broadcasts of I’m a Celebrity… Get me Out of Here.
That online fact-checking outfits, invaluable as they are, can barely keep up with the misspeaking, was confirmed last week, when Ms Soubry’s speech coincided with a rival outburst from Cameron’s adviser on childhood, the MP Claire Perry, previously a financier. She urged parents to spy on their children’s mobiles as a guard against sexualisation, a long-favoured pretext for political alarmism since nobody can prove that our seven-year-olds are not being groomed for the white slave trade by trends in advertising, toys, airbrushing, sexting, videos and skimpy tops featuring vile slogans unfamiliar to all but members of the Mothers’ Union. It is not even clear that enhanced internet filters, occasionally promised by Cameron, would be any more effective than Ms Perry’s pleas to parents she presumably knows to be deficient in this respect, to “sit down with their kids and say, ‘Are you aware of what’s out there?'” For homes with no chairs as well as no tables, the advice, apparently, is to have the conversation standing up.
But what, in turn, can be done for the ministers? The first step is to keep them away from places, like government, where the temptation to mislead is just too great. Failing that, one can only hope for vigilance from Dame Sally Davies, the impressive chief medical officer. Last week, she managed, in a single appearance before the science and technology committee, to rubbish homeopathy and assure politicians that, on drug decriminalisation, with which she sympathises: “I will make sure that the truth – the scientific evidence, peer reviewed – is published… even if it is uncomfortable for me.” Before that, however, Broxtowe could use a visit.