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The hidden role of cake in British politics

June 8, 2017

On this Election Day I have nothing further to say about the momentous choices facing the electorate. In fact I’m not sure that what I had to say before was of much significance. A series of long, weary sighs would probably have sufficed. But I do have a question that nobody in politics is likely to want to answer.

Some time ago, as an aggrieved baldie, I wrote a piece about how if you’re male and blessed with a bright shiny pate, you have no chance of being elected to lead just about any country except France. At least – in the case of Britain and the USA – not since the days of President Eisenhower and Sir Alec Douglas-Home (who wasn’t elected anyway, and ended up being unseated by Harold Wilson after a couple of years in power).

Now for another earth-shattering observation masquerading as a question. Why is it that the women who have risen to prominence in our leading political parties have such different body shapes? None of them are bald (as far as I know), but I can’t help noticing that the Tory women are built like hunter-gatherers, as are Theresa May, Justine Greening and Andrea Leadsom. But among the upper echelons of the Labour side there seems to be a preponderance of women built like earth goddesses. I’m thinking of people like Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry and now the person who has temporarily replaced Abbott as Shadow Home Secretary, Lyn Brown.

This is not a commentary on the attractiveness or otherwise of these women. I’m neither a fat-shamer (how could I be, with my generous 18-stone physique?) nor an ardent admirer of the lean and mean.

But I do wonder why things have changed since yesteryear. The time was when the Tory women – especially those of the shires, who kept the blue flame alive and sailed like battleships into the party’s annual conferences – were often as wide as they were high. And Labour’s senior female politicians were the sort of women you would bet on completing a three-hour marathon: Barbara Castle, Margaret Beckett and more recently Harriet Harman.

One possible answer has its roots in cake.

Since its inception and until fairly recently, the core purpose of Women’s Institutes, those alleged hotbeds of Tory fanaticism, was to keep the home fires burning. Yes, they stuck up for women, but suffragettes they were not. At the risk of appearing unfair, sexist and, heaven forbid, patronising, one of things for which WIs were famous was the quality of their cakes, even in wartime when the normal ingredients were unavailable.

In recent decades, the WI has broadened its scope and appeal. Food still features strongly, but these days you are more likely to find “healthy” recipes on their website than instructions for making a treacle tart.

At the same time as the organisation has moved beyond its traditional appeal, we in Britain have started to celebrate the naughty but nice on a far wider scale than the WI ever achieved. To a large extent, this has been down to the success of The Great British Bake-Off, which is a triumphant celebration of the empty calorie.

Of the presenters and judges, only Mary Berry would be recognisable as a archetypal Tory, even if she’s a frigate rather than a battleship. And the competition winners come from all walks of life, exemplified by the lovely Nadia, who is a Muslim of Bangladeshi descent. Could it be that Bake-Off has convinced a greater number of Labour voters that cake is cool – and I’m not talking about Mr Kipling’s lamentable creations?

To be honest, I have no idea whether the ample proportions of the senior Labour women have anything to do with the national obsession with cake. For all I know, the opposite might be true.

More likely it has to do with wider lifestyle issues, and the fact that these career politicians are struggling to balance family life with the needs of the job. There are no free lunches if you’re in opposition. I suspect that the senior ones eat quickly and on the run, which is not the best way of controlling weight, assuming they actually wish to.

On the other hand, May and her colleagues are pretty busy too. The PM suffers from Type 1 diabetes, so she has to control her calorie intake, but what about the others? Is the difference down to vanity, being comfortable in their skin or otherwise? Is body size more important to censorious, image-conscious Tories than to the more tolerant, inclusive Labourites?

Whatever the reason, it might just be a passing phenomenon. The junior members of Labour’s shadow cabinet more closely resemble their Tory counterparts, and Ruth Davidson, who leads the Conservatives in Scotland, is hardly a stick insect – though to be fair, she does come from the home of the deep-fried Mars bar.

Whether it’s down to the cake, the demands of the job or personal preference, I prefer to see a little diversity of shape among those who are governing us. Or to put it another way, I’m somewhat suspicious of those who – in the words of Shakespeare – have “a lean and hungry look”. Like Cassius, who did for Caesar, they tend to be the assassins.

From → Politics, Social, UK

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