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Cameron ate a hot dog with a knife and fork!

Many in Britain despair that their political cycle has been reduced to a series of food-eating controversies. Yet, this kind of class symbolism can be potent

Image Credit: REUTERS
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron
Gulf News

On Monday, David Cameron did something very brave. The British Prime Minister, facing what is likely to be an extremely close race for reelection May 7, went to a voter’s garden and had a meal. Braver still, he allowed the British press to take photographs of him eating the meal.

It sounds strange, but in Britain’s election season, eating has become political. And it did not take long for Brits to notice that Cameron was eating wrong: He was using a knife and a fork to eat a hotdog. Only someone like Cameron could eat a hot dog with a knife and fork.

The implication behind all the social media outpouring is that Cameron is not a normal human being, who would presumably eat a hot dog with his hands. That is a little unfair, of course, but there is a little truth to it: Cameron is the son of a stockbroker who can trace his lineage to royalty. His education epitomises the upper class of British life: Schooling at Eton College, followed by a degree from Oxford University, where he was a member of the infamous restaurant-trashing Bullingdon Club.

Now, he leads a political party synonymous with the upper echelons of Britain’s class system. Even his fiercest supporters might have to begrudgingly admit that Cameron is not an “average” or “normal” Brit. He is posh.

The hot dog problem is more complicated than that, however. Cameron had been attending the barbecue in Dorset, England, where he was meeting with people who had benefited from changes to Britain’s tax system that had come into force last Monday. The meal formed part of a wide-ranging pre-election tour of the United Kingdom, where food had become central to showing he was an everyman.

As the Daily Mail noted after Cameron was photographed eating haggis (a popular Scottish food made with a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs) in Edinburgh, the prime minister seemed to be “eating his way around Britain in a bid to woo voters”. In 2012, Cameron was photographed eating hot dogs with his fingers with President Barack Obama, but in 2015, Cameron was apparently cautious about eating a potentially messy hot dog with his fingers. Sky News suggested that the British leader was trying to avoid a repeat of the now-infamous photograph of his rival, Ed Miliband, eating a bacon sandwich.

The unflattering photograph of Miliband was taken almost a year ago, when he was spotted by photographers as he went to buy flowers for his wife at 6:30am. It has now become one of the most defining images of Miliband’s career. The Labour Party leader has been forced to acknowledge the photograph in speeches. “If you want the politician from central casting, it’s just not me, it’s the other guy,” Miliband said last summer.

The party Miliband leads, Labour, is a Left-wing group that has links to trade unions. It is, traditionally, more of a party for “average” voters, but the reality is that in the 21st century, the party is perceived as just as out of touch as its Conservative rivals. Miliband, an awkward political leader with undeniable intellect, doesn’t come from the same background as Cameron, but his own history is just as alien to many voters: The son of a Jewish Marxist academic who fled to England during Second World War, Miliband also attended Oxford University.

In a post-bacon sandwich world, British politicians have taken it upon themselves to highlight their own normal eating habits. “Eating a bacon sandwich in Cambridge,” Conservative member of parliament David Jones tweeted in December. “Because I can.”

No one has done this better than Nigel Farage, the leader of the upstart populist Right-wing party United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), who has made a point of being repeatedly photographed with pints of beer. In many ways, Farage is pretty far from the “average” British voter too — educated at the private Dulwich College, he made millions as a stockbroker — but he does know how to eat a bacon sandwich. Some expect Ukip, which focuses on an anti-immigration and anti-European Union platform, to make landmark gains at the next election.

Perhaps this all seems silly. It is. Many in Britain despair that their political cycle has been reduced into a series of food-eating controversies. But still, in Britain, this kind of class symbolism can be potent. Last year, a Labour MP was forced to resign after a seemingly innocuous tweet was perceived to have mocked the British working class. Last year, a YouGov poll for Buzzfeed found that 41 percent of voters thought Miliband was “weird”, compared to 27 per cent for Cameron.

Britain’s problems with hot dogs have historical roots in America. When King George visited President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, they were served hot dogs by their American host, and while the King used his hands, Queen Elizabeth preferred to use a knife and fork. And while Americans may scoff, they have had their own food-eating related political incidents: Just last year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio caused a controversy by eating a slice of pizza with cutlery, and in 1976, president Gerald Ford tried to eat a tamale whole — including the corn husk.

— Washington Post

Originally from London, Adam Taylor studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.