‘The Last Refuge of Patriotism’: On Microwaves, Wine, and Brexit.
Why We Talk about Food When We Talk about Brexit.
Last week, an amazingly weird video was released by the Conservative Party to ‘kick off’ their election campaign, in which Boris Johnson gave a staged interview to a faceless voice whilst fumbling around in an office kitchen.
Apart from all the fairly obvious content about Johnson listening to the Rolling Stones and the political disaster that a — curiously familiar-sounding — ‘coalition of chaos with Jeremy Corbyn’ would bring, there was a line about the Tory Brexit deal that was striking.
According to Johnson, this deal was ‘oven-ready, slam it in the microwave’. He would go on to use this line over and over again in Tuesday night’s election debate with Jeremy Corbyn.
Now, this deal is not in any proper sense ‘ready’. Meanwhile, some have pointed out that it would not be particularly clever to slam an oven-ready meal in the microwave. This, however, is not really the point.
What was interesting about this line was that it wasn’t just an off-the-cuff metaphor used by Johnson because he was stood in a kitchen — something that would give it sense. Rather, it was a line that Michael Gove, in a speech in Bristol at the beginning of the month, had used before. And again, it was one that Johnson has used repeatedly since.
So why might this metaphor of an ‘oven-ready, slam it in the microwave’ Brexit deal have been the one that was chosen? A nice, comprehensible visual image? Maybe. But when message discipline extends even to culinary metaphors, it’s hard, incidentally, not to notice something of a lack of creativity.
Instead, one might point out the metaphors of food that have been, perhaps surprisingly, present throughout our seemingly endless discussions of Brexit. Microwaveable Brexits and full English Brexits. Deep-fried Brexit trumpets. The ever-present spectre of chlorinated chicken.
When we talk about leaving the EU, we talk about food. And that is no accident.
Food and the European ‘Essence’.
Back in the 1980s, Luigi Barzini, the Italian journalist and politician, published a series of essays responding to the possibility of an extension of the European community into a full single market. Each essay in this book, The Europeans, sought to analyse the national character of the particular nations involved in this discussion: the UK, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and — for some reason — the USA.
Barzini analysed the peculiar histories and concerns of each of these countries, focusing on the wars that shaped them, the political aims that drove them, and the cultural habits that defined them.
His project, he claimed, was to identify the ‘obscure forces preventing the coagulation of Western Europe into a solid whole, as easily as liquid milk curdles into a block of fresh cheese as soon as the rennet is dropped into it’. Even here, in this early discussion of the EU, the images and symbolisms of food come thick and fast.
The Land of Wine.
In amongst the references to British imperial nostalgia, French military complacency, and Italian immigration, food — or, more specifically, gastronomy — appears as one of the defining characteristics shared across European countries. Despite France bickering with Germany over the definition of mayonnaise (an early obstacle to further integration) and Italy resenting the snobbishness with which the French (again) saw Italian cuisine, the continent of Europe, according to Barzini, was best identified by its shared essence: wine.
‘Above all … [Barzini writes] wine is perhaps the essence of our continent. It is a rebellious product. The best cannot be homogenized and mass produced. It varies from place to place and from year to year. To make it, man must submit to ancient unvarying disciplines, trust his instinct, follow nature, and preserve the ancient arts of the vintner unchanged in spite of the scientific and convenient instruments invented to ease his works’.
Now, it is unclear in what precise sense Barzini intends Europe to be ‘rebellious’. Nor, really, can Europe be described as the only place to ‘vary from place to place’ or in which people ‘submit to ancient unvarying disciplines’.
Yet, this sense of what Europe as a whole means — history, tradition, the wit of its men — is a particularly beguiling and widespread image of the continent’s culture. Yet, it is one in which Britain — quite consciously, if not willingly — plays no part.
British Exceptionalism and Britain Imagining Europe.
The image of British exclusion — or deliberate difference — from Europe has been, we can recognise, one of the fundamental historical drivers of Brexit. The Commonwealth is our closest friend, we might say. We are an island. The English language makes the US our natural allies.
Yet one of the most profound differences between Britain’s image of itself and its image of Europe is really one of the most mundane. Brits drink tea, we believe, not coffee. We drink beer, rather than wine. We eat the same food every day — and are not fussed about ‘exotic’ foods like olives.
It is very difficult, indeed, to see Brits sympathising with the idea that the essence of their identity might be wine. Among Britons, even among those who share in and are sympathetic to an idea of a European culture, this image of wine and all it might evoke remains something quite distant or separate from Britain.
As one study of British attitudes to Europe showed, Europe conjured up ideas of ‘cosmopolitan[ism], arts, history, gourmet food, culture of food and fine food’. Meanwhile, even among so-called ‘Remainers’, drinking European wine functions as a codeword for a certain excessive Europhile snobbishness. Whenever there is mention of snobby Remainers, a reference to their taste for wine is never far behind.
To illustrate the politics of this association even further, let’s look back to 2017, when Theresa May, still relevant, stated in a speech that ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’ This was an attempt to draw support from the class of people often referred to as those ‘left behind by globalisation’, yet, more importantly here, it provoked a conversation about the nature of cosmopolitanism. Articles defining and defending cosmopolitan — and here’s the point — showered the internet, many of them illustrated with images of people drinking wine.
Such images as these betray the perceived appropriateness of particular foods to particular populations; they reveal the fact that foods and drinks are markers for particular classes, demographics, or culture. And, in this way, wine continues to maintain its association with a ‘global elite’.
Yet, given that, in the UK, wine has historically been something associated with the French, this cosmopolitan elite was destined to overlap with an image of Europe.
Cosmopolitanism and Chlorinated Chicken.
It is precisely this association that Johnson’s ‘oven-ready, slam it in the microwave’ Brexit plays on. The same too that the Conservative MP, James Gray’s, ‘Full English Brexit’ plays on too. Against the cultured and refined — or highfalutin and snobbish — image of ‘cosmopolitan’ Europe, Britain is presented as pragmatic, down-to-earth, and authentic. If Brexit, then, has unleashed a ‘culture war’, one of the battlegrounds for this has been food.
This fundamental association — wine and its metaphorical tenors with Europe, unfussiness with Britain — is fairly common. However, the evaluations of this differ: if Johnson promotes it, people like the composer, Matthew Herbert, who recorded the sound of a trumpet being deep-fried in a chip shop to symbolise Brexit Britain, decry it. Meanwhile, there is an undeniable snobbery on the part of Europhiles who further identify Brexit as something to do with pint-drinking and Wetherspoons (an association Nigel Farage is happy to maintain).
Into this scene has stridden of late the most complex part of Brexit’s culinary symbolism, the colossal image of the Chlorinated Chicken. And whilst this has communicated the perversity of Brexit Britain’s gastronomic ambitions, it has also highlighted again the potential for snobbish disgust among the Europeanists.
Chlorinated Chicken came to life as the spawn of a fear of deteriorating UK food standards after Brexit. As a rhetorical image, it is effective in its tangible, Frankensteinish monstrosity: it means mass production and homogenisation, artificiality and an abominable disrespect for nature. And as the horrifying — explicitly Americanized — other to European civility’s wine, it is the logical conclusion of Johnson’s rhetoric of a ‘microwave’ meal deal.
Yet, on these grounds, a debate about food standards and cultural difference is unwinnable. Because it is so easy to reassert the image of Corbyn, an amateur jam-maker and scone-fan, as the fear-mongering and condescending inheritor of the culinary chauvinism of Barzini and his European wine.
Barzini refers to gastronomy as the ‘last refuge of patriotism’. Yet, in a country such as the UK, without much of an indigenous gastronomic culture to speak of, food functions more like the primary space of the xenophobe. If, in Italy, politicians can claim that migrants don’t belong because they cannot digest pasta, here we say that preferring coffee to tea is traitorous, or people who like wine are unpatriotic snobs.
And so we remain content with sneering from behind our microwaves and fried sausages, with propagating the emptiest of reactive populisms. If Brexit has taught us anything, it is that all manner of things can be caught up in the webs and rhetoric of nationalisms. Oven-ready meals included.