Rod Liddle is impressed by David Cameron’s speech in Glasgow and the Tory leader’s call for greater personal responsibility. Antisocial behaviour needs to be stigmatised, not treated as an illness to be cured
Good for David Cameron. There was a grotesquely fat woman in front of me in the checkout queue at Sainsbury’s this week, so fat I couldn’t see the car park; she looked like 26 Ethiopians, if you put them in a blender, added some bleach and gelatine and then allowed the result to set for 38 years in the fridge. Her trolley was full of prepackaged brown filth, tramp-semen-flavoured nacho chips, pasta shaped into an approximation of Shami Chakrabarti’s face, smothered in sugar and vinegar and tomato sauce and shoved in a tin, and carbonated sugary drinks that would make Jesus belch. Meanwhile, causing a ruckus by the entrance, was her vile lardy brood, a clutch of under ten E.S.N. thromboses waiting to happen, even the youngest of them with a pierced ear. How did they find a sleeper large enough to get through all that earlobe fat, I wondered — through all that reconstituted crispy chicken nugget and salt and sugar and saturated gunk?
Before David Cameron’s speech in Glasgow East I would simply have shrugged my shoulders, looking at this hag, and maybe sighed — ah, yes, this is Britain. But now he has told these awful people it’s all their own fault that they are hideous, poor and stupid I felt thoroughly empowered; liberated almost. So instead of doing nothing I set the fat mother on fire with my Zippo lighter and, on the way out, kicked the smallest fat child hard in the gut. Nearly lost my boot, too; entire leg almost swallowed whole.
Well, OK, I didn’t do any of that. But I thought about doing it and that is an improvement, a nod in the right direction. Ever since Cameron’s speech — a politically brave thing to do, because I am told that almost everybody in the constituency resembles that lady in front of me in the checkout queue — there has been a renewed spring in my step. For the first time this effete public-school monkey connected. What he said will have had resonance across the country, I suspect: it is what you hear people saying all the time, almost all people, except politicians. You can tell it was good stuff by the number of harridans from endlessly diffuse pressure groups — most of them paid for through the wallets of you and I, all of them wrong — ensconced in BBC local radio stations whining about how David Cameron is a bully, why we need to show solidarity with fat, stupid people, rather than setting them on fire, and how alcoholism and ‘obesity’ and drug addiction are illnesses, in much the same way that scarlet fever or sciatica are illnesses. No, they’re not — and Cameron deserves credit for having said so.
What he actually said was this: ‘Social problems are often the consequence of the choices people make. We talk about people being “at risk” of poverty or social exclusion. It’s as if these things — obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction — are purely external events, like the plague or bad weather.’ Well, let’s leave aside poverty for a moment; the rest of that sentence seems to me a statement of the bleeding obvious and therefore it is perhaps a little sad, and a bit indicative, that a politician should be praised for having uttered it. (I am not sure, incidentally, why he included poverty in his roll-call of self-inflicted pain — maybe because, as the gilded son of a stockbroker who attended Britain’s top public school, he genuinely thinks it is. But it isn’t; few people wish to be poor and most have the ability to make decisions which would enable them not to be so, were that possible. But except in a minority of cases, the choices are not available to them. You can exculpate the government from all manner of social problems and be right to do so — but not financial hardship and low wages. Blame the market, if you like, but not the individual.)
But obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction? Forty years ago it would not have occurred to anybody to blame such afflictions upon anyone else but the addict. But since then, from the very best of motives, we have twisted this dominant paradigm until it is, absurdly, facing the other way. We began by saying that people who drank too much, or were addicted to drugs, might need help from a third party — and across the country support agencies were set up, which was probably a good thing to do. But through an ineluctable process we are now in a position where both drug addiction and alcoholism are entirely divorced from personal responsibility; they have become illnesses from which one suffers, passively. Nobody, outside of these support agencies and our politicians, a few pseudo-medics who have a vested interest in propagating such a view and maybe one or two of the more deluded addicts believes that this is true.
Being an alcoholic may be appalling and debilitating, and such a state should have claims upon our sympathy and the acknowledgement that discipline and courage will be needed to rid oneself of it. But discipline and courage will get the job done — and so in this respect it is not an illness at all. One cannot stop oneself suffering from cancer, or schizophrenia, simply by desisting from an aspect of one’s behaviour, by an act of volition and willpower. If only we could! This doesn’t mean that alcoholics and drug addicts do not need help, nor that we should refuse to give them help. It just means that their infirmity and misery was in the first place self-inflicted.
And the same is true of most obesity. Being fat can have a genetic component, of course. But more often than not it is the consequence of stupidity, laziness and gluttony. And indeed — much though those harridans on the radio might cavil — by a surfeit of money, rather than a lack of the stuff. The really fattening prepackaged food is much more costly than raw, unadulterated food — it just takes less time to prepare and is chosen because it gives an instant gratification of sugar and salt. The wilfully obese get little exercise because they are perpetually camped out at home in front of expensive entertainment systems which would make their grandparents stand and gawp in astonishment. They walk nowhere largely because they have cars. Obesity is not a symptom of poverty at all — as the starving Africans, few of whom have a Sky Box in the lounge, an Xbox in the bedroom, a Mondeo in the drive and a KFC party bucket halfway down their gullets, would be quick to attest.
But over the years we have backed ourselves into a corner, under an onslaught from single-issue pressure groups which, through a wish to expand and make themselves ever more important, insist that these sorts of problems must be borne by society as a whole and are thus, by extension, somehow the fault of society. To the dismay of the Left, the utilities and service industries in Britain were privatised, one by one, from the beginning of the 1980s. But somehow, from around about the same period, the Left succeeded in nationalising a whole array of sociopathic or merely antisocial forms of behaviour, placing both the moral and financial burden for dealing with these issues upon the state and away from the individual. If Cameron is true to his word, quite soon we will enjoy one last, great privatisation. Get ready to buy shares.
One mechanism for ensuring the individual does take responsibility for his or her health is social stigma. For many a year we have been enjoined to cease stigmatising the morbidly obese, the terminally drunk and skagheads, because it really isn’t their fault — and as a result an important means of combating these social ills has been thrown away. Stigmatising has a point; it is not just fun to shout abuse at fat people, it is socially useful too. If fat people think there is nothing wrong with being fat, that nobody wi
ll think the worse of them for it, then they may well conclude that they should indeed remain fat, or even get fatter. This relentless insistence that we should cease to stigmatise people has a consequence which we might have guessed right from the beginning. Remove the stigma, and you make antisocial behaviour more attractive. If you cease to stigmatise young unmarried mothers, for example — as politicians have repeatedly insisted we must — then one consequence will be more young, unmarried mothers. If you think that’s a good thing for society, then fine, destigmatise to your heart’s content. But almost everybody does think that a huge increase in unmarried young mothers was — is — bad for society, economically and socially. So the destigmatising is not simply damaging, but a form of communal hypocrisy. But it would be a stage too far to expect Mr Cameron to begin hurling abuse at fat people, or kicking them, just yet, I suppose.