Column Road

Why Saint Jamie’s sugar tax has left me more than flat

By Harry Heath

For all his flaws, Bullingdon chancer David Cameron’s instincts were right on one thing at least: the ‘sugar tax’ is a bland policy that leaves a patronising aftertaste. In 2015, the prime minister’s spokesman made it clear that Number 10 saw no need for a rise in the VAT on sugary products; but a few years on and we are now feeling the effects of this large dose of statism in public life.

It goes without saying that a lifetime of excessive drinking or smoking will increase the risk of health problems, but there is undoubtedly a culture today that endeavours to find something new each month that is the next big killer – a crisis-in-waiting that will wipe out a generation if we do not change our behaviour, and fast. In 2014, a widely-reported study claimed that “Diets high in meat, eggs and dairy could be as harmful to health as smoking”, earlier this year The Guardian reported that “Yes, bacon really is killing us.”

Unlike Michael Gove and the 52%, I personally have not ‘had enough of experts’, I consider it wise to defer to them on areas of health. This said, with ever-increasing amounts of our diets being labelled by reports as our last suppers, I do question whether we should entertain the constant calls from authorities to alter our eating habits when certain foods have been eaten by the human race for many generations. When it was proposed to him on QI that bread and milk were not good for him, David Mitchell replied:

“It’s absolutely demonstrably fine, we’ve been drinking milk and eating bread for ages. Why’s it such a massive problem? Oh no! we’re supposed live until we’re 250 but because we’ve been having all this poisonous bread and milk all the time we can barely limp past 98!”

Echoing this view of such nonsense, a BBC article commented that “Today, the dinner table can instead begin to feel like a minefield”, later quoting the celebrity chef Nigella Lawson who articulated the inconsistency of those who know what’s best for us: “You can guarantee that what people think will be good for you this year, they won’t next year.”

I am not suggesting a diet of sugar-loading is in anyone’s best interests, though I believe societal discouragement of high sugar consumption through increased education and advertising regulations would be an adequate strategy to tackle this challenge. I am however uneasy about the state implementing policies to hit its citizens where it really hurts, in their pockets.

The main objection I have to this policy is the patronising tone adopted by its most famous advocate, Jamie Oliver, who claims that the current labels on food and drinks leave the public confused. Unable to make sense of the contents of what we consume, Jamie’s crusade for a sugar tax has remained our only hope for a Britain free from Coca Cola-induced squalor and idleness. While Oliver clearly coveted the status of celeb-cook turned patron saint of health, he now cuts the rather more unpopular shape of a condescending bully: Saint Jamie, patron saint of tax collectors.

It is not surprising that this policy has received such mixed responses. Our politicians should know by now that people want the most control of their own lives as possible, and don’t particularly like being told what to do by multi-millionaire celebrities. We tell you what you need to know, they say. We know what’s best for you, now shut up and take your medicine. That is assuming of course that they haven’t set their sights on Calpol.

From the beginning of the campaign for a sugar tax the opposition labelled the legislation ‘Nanny State’. It is both this and a futile attempt to tackle healthcare costs that will only frustrate consumers and hit the poorest the hardest. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. Jamie and his supporters are grossly misguided in thinking the latter can prevent the former.

A final word from me

As this is the final edition of Gair Rhydd for this academic year, I would like to take this opportunity to thank anyone who may have bothered to read my weekly ramblings in Unsafe Space. Whether you have agreed or disagreed, I hope Unsafe Space has remained relevant to the moment, engaging to readers, and challenging to conventional wisdom on occasions. Writing an opinion column and contributing to this paper has become a part of university life I have enjoyed immensely, and I am grateful that I have been allowed to do so by people that work far harder than I have. Finally, I would like to say that my time writing for Gair Rhydd has been nothing but a wholly pleasurable experience and joining the team here is something that I would recommend to anyone who has the chance to do so.

Harry Heath

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