The Running Commentary Column from the July 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard
It's not often that I find myself in half agreement with a lackey of capitalism, in this case Edwina Currie, junior Health Minister. When she made her headline-grabbing remarks that Northerners are more overweight than Southerners, eat too many crisps and drink too much. I could only concur with her. While aware that Southerners eat junk food too, Mrs Currie raised a question to which any socialist could have given her the answer: diet is related to economic circumstances.
Two years on medical "experts” have reached the same conclusion and are taking Mrs Currie to task for omitting this explanation from her previous comments. The Henley Centre's director of health. Mr Kreitzman. told a BUPA conference in Leeds that by the early part of the next century life expectancy in the South would be longer than in the North. "We are talking about four to five years, which is quite significant", he said. "Just as we are developing an economy with affluence and poverty living cheek by jowl, so it is the case with health" (Guardian, 2 June). Currie was also attacked by Dr Colin Waine, chairman of the Clinical Research Division of the Royal College of Practitioners, who said that she had failed to understand that a northern diet is based on a tradition of low wage levels and heavy manual work.
One explanation for the northern predilection for "comfort" food may be that offered by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier:
Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would rather starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less you feel inclined to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita; an unemployed man doesn't. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little "tasty".
As long as capitalism exists, if you have caviar tastes but a fish and chip budget then your choice of food will be restricted by the amount of money you get for selling your labour-power to a minority ruling class. If you really want to improve both your health and your happiness then abolish this junk system of society. Abolish capitalism.
Tucked away on the back page of the Guardian of 7 June was a hundred and fifty word report headlined "Howe insists on the beneficence of the capitalist system". In a speech in the City of London the day before Sir Geoffrey Howe had defended the social responsibility of the capitalist economy by claiming that those acting in their own interest in the market were promoting an increase in others' well-being. (Those readers who haven’t at this point fallen off their seats, and are rolling about consumed with hollow laughter, read on.) Replying to recent criticism by the Church of England, Sir Geoffrey said. “Where people are able to respond to the signals of the market place, they are responding to the preferences of their citizens. In effect, in seeking to increase their own well being, they are often helping to promote an increase in other people’s well being." He concluded that the welfare state, by promoting rights rather than responsibilities, had undermined traditional obligations.
Assuming that all readers aren’t curled up on the floor at this point, screaming "Please, Sir Geoffrey, no more. Have you ever thought of auditioning for Bob Monkhouse's Opportunity Knocks?', let me remind you that Denis Healey compared being criticised by Howe to being savaged by a dead sheep. This is a mistake. One must never under-estimate the power and influence of a member of the executive of the modern state, the committee for managing the common affairs of the ruling class, no matter how inane or ineffectual he or she may appear to be.