‘Shamburger’ row embarrasses UK Chancellor
George Osborne, in charge of Britain’s finances, spent weeks hammering out a plan for UK spending. Now, just at the moment of his success, a rogue hamburger has stolen the limelight.
Tuesday night: George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, was working late, putting the finishing touches on his big speech on spending to be delivered the next day. This spending review, laying out new cuts in government budgets, was the product of weeks of furious backroom wrangling with other ministers; of tough negotiations and late nights. It was a difficult job, but Osborne had worked hard, made the necessary deals, and got it done.
Perfectly understandable then, that under the circumstances the Chancellor felt entitled to a moment of showing off. An assistant logged onto the official Twitter account and posted a photograph of Osborne at his desk, bent over his papers. Around him were the remains of a hasty working supper: cans of diet cola, a bag of chips and, in a neat white box, a half-eaten burger.
The idea was to give the public a glimpse behind the scenes at the life of a busy, hardworking Chancellor. But, as so often happens with Twitter, things did not go entirely to plan. As replies started coming in, it soon became clear that one of Britain’s most senior ministers had been upstaged by his own supper.
The first lot of commenters thought Osborne’s humble-looking burger was a cheap trick – a politician’s way of making himself appear in touch with the ‘common man’. Then it was discovered that Osborne’s supper was no £2.69 Big Mac. Instead, it was from a luxury burger outlet called Byron. With chips and a drink, it will have cost just under £10.
‘Shamburger!’ shouted the headline in the next day’s Sun. He was pretending to be a man of the people, the article implied, but really he is only willing to eat ‘posh nosh’.
Osborne quickly responded that he was ‘partial to a quarter pounder with cheese’ and had ordered from Byron because ‘McDonald’s doesn’t deliver.’ His defensiveness is born of experience: last year’s Budget was overshadowed by a row over when Prime Minister David Cameron last ate a cornish pasty. Before that, the Labour politician David Miliband saw his career take a nosedive after being photographed waving a banana. For MPs, it seems, you really are what you eat.
This is exactly what many people think is wrong with modern politics, where serious conversation is drowned out by a shallow, trivialising media. What can politicians do in a world where people are less interested in the Chancellor’s spending review than in whether or not he likes McDonald’s?
McDonald’s is not the point, reporters could reply. What really matters is the message the burger conveys: first, that the man in charge of Britain’s finances is posh and out of touch with ordinary people, and second, that he is desperate to hide it.
- Does it matter whether or not politicians are ‘posh’?
- What if George Osborne had said something like: ‘I’m quite rich and prefer fancy burgers’? Would that have been better or worse?
- What would you give politicians to eat if you were in charge? Write a menu and explain your choices.
- In pairs, either write a script for or improvise a performance of an interview with George Osborne. What would you say if you were him when confronted by the burger question?
Some People Say...
“Politicians should never eat better than the people they serve.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- This really does all seem pretty trivial!
- On the surface, maybe, but the dilemma that politicians like Osborne face should be familiar to everyone.
- How so?
- Human brains are brilliant at spotting social clues. When you meet someone for the first time, your brain uses clues like the shoes they wear, the way they talk or the way they stand to try to fill in the gaps in your information and build up a picture of their life and background. In Britain, at least, that means class comes into the equation.
- Go on...
- Osborne, who is seen as ‘posh’, may have been trying to send a signal about his class when he ate that burger. In the same way, we all send class signals out to everyone we meet. The question is: do you manipulate the signals or just be yourself?
- Each year, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer delivers his Budget to parliament, laying out what the government will spend and what it will take in taxes in the coming year. Last year’s Budget included a rise in tax on hot foods, which quickly became called the ‘Pasty Tax’.
- Cornish pasty
- Cornish pasties are traditional working class snacks made of meat and potatoes wrapped in pastry, specially designed, the story goes, to be eaten down mine shafts (Cornwall is famous for tin mining). After the ‘Pasty Tax’ Budget, David Cameron was attacked by the media for claiming to have eaten a pasty from a shop which had in fact closed down before he got there.
- David Miliband was called ‘bananas’ after being photographed brandishing the fruit outside a Labour Party conference. It could have been worse, however. In 2002, US President George W. Bush almost choked to death on a rogue pretzel.