What Owen Smith's Attempt at Being 'Normal' Tells Us About the State of Politics
"Coffee with biscuits? Never heard of it!"
Politicians tend to be deeply weird people. For every MP who went into the job out of a genuine and misplaced desire to leave the world a slightly warmer and better place than they found it, there are dozens of the others: not just craven, power-hungry and queasily libidinal, but downright strange. You might remember them from uni – the kids who wanted more than anything to join the political class, who acted it out through all those po-faced student union elections, awkward at parties but full of a terrifying, otherworldly intensity. People hate politicians, and they're right to. They're not like us, they don't share our priorities, their thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are their ways our ways.
Not Owen Smith, though. The boiled potato who would be Labour leader, the man on a mission to save the party from its own membership, has staked everything on the idea that he's a normal man. He has a normal house and a normal wife and normal children and used to do a normal job doing PR for a very normal pharmaceuticals company. He can really understand the concerns of everyday people, not like Jeremy Corbyn with his out-of-touch socialism, or even Angela Eagle with her metropolitan homosexuality. And because he's so normal, the reasoning goes, normal people will want to vote for him. Except, of course, that this normal man doesn't exist. He's a void. Apart from a few lizard-brain attachments – a vague sense of Englishness, a sporadic violence towards foreigners – the normal man can only be defined apophatically, in terms of what he isn't: he isn't clever, he isn't fancy, he isn't allowed nice things, he isn't in support of any political ideology, he isn't different in any way. The normal man has no qualities whatsoever; he's nothing more than a hole for food to go into and fury to come out of.
But politicians, who are not normal, keep trying to appeal to him, because this is what they think of us. This is how they think we are.
It might almost work for Smith, who is after all a preternaturally boring person. But even a personality black hole like Owen Smith betrays some mild particularities, and when they come out he has to extinguish them. Which leads to some moments that are just utterly absurd. Case in point: Smith's recent interview with the Observer, which his campaign team liked so much that they reproduced it on his own website. Most of the interview is devoted to his weird, meaningless, chiasmic attempts at political triangulation – "we live in a capitalist society and the Labour party is about trying to achieve socialism within that" – but that's not important right now. What matters is the first paragraph, which really needs to be appreciated in full. The Observer's Daniel Boffrey writes:
Receiving his "frothy coffee" in Pontypridd's Prince's cafe, Owen Smith stopped mid-sentence to express some amusement. "I tell you it is the first time I have ever been given little biscuits and a posh cup in here," Smith said, looking up at the owner David Gamberini, as his order was placed on the table. "Seriously, I would have a mug normally," the MP added, examining the refreshments in front of him.
And as everyone above the age of six knows, a coffee with frothy milk is not called a "frothy coffee"; it's a latte or a cappuccino, and it's often served with perfectly unremarkable little biscuits. This is normal now: Britain might not be in great shape, but in the 21st century Italian food no longer exclusively comes out of a tin and more than one type of coffee is available to all. It's reasonable to assume that Owen Smith, who made a six-figure salary at Pfizer, has had enough access to the good things in life that he knows the names of all the different types of coffee. Owen Smith lied to us. He pretended not to know what a cappuccino is or how it's served, and he lied.
There's a sad, keening desperation to that lie, a frantic insistence that he's utterly baffled by a perfectly normal cup of coffee. "I tell you," he says. "Seriously," he says. Try to picture the scene: Owen Smith's delicious, milky cappuccino is plonked down on the table in front of him, but suddenly there's a wrenching, sickly twist in his gut. Is this what normal people drink? He tries to remember: something about builder's tea with four sugars, something about the burly pub-goer's instinctual hatred of fancy coffee with little biscuits in foil sachets. The fate of the country might depend on this. And so out comes a hasty flurry of excuses: this isn't my coffee, I've never seen this coffee before, you can throw it down the toilet for all I care. Little biscuits? I don't know whether to eat them or shove them up my arse. This is how you connect with ordinary people.
But it's too late now; Owen Smith will have to keep going. Now that he's outed himself as someone childishly confused about the process of dunking a biscuit in coffee, he can't drop the charade. If the media stumble on him eating food with a knife and fork, he'll have to explain that this is all new to him – he usually drinks gruel out of an old boot, just like normal people. He won't be able to take a ride in his official car without loudly exclaiming what strange and fancy mules they have down in London. If he's caught watching television, all he can do is express his wonder and suspicion at what kind of witchcraft put the tiny people in that box. Because he's a normal person, and that's what normal people do: they act like a shapeshifting alien, trying and failing to mask their total ignorance of human life.
Coffeegate is ground zero for the essential stupidity of British politics. These people and their PR teams know but don't understand; they get that they're considered to be dangerously out of touch and indifferent to the lives of the people they represent, but because they're idiots, they think it's all about coffee. When people complain about a careless political elite, it's all taken on board, but they think it's a question of drinking out of more authentic crockery. We saw something similar earlier this year: when the Labour party denied McDonald's a stall at its conference over their violations of labour rights, Wes Streeting MP rushed to the defence of the multi-billion pound company, because while it "may not be the trendy falafel bar that some people in politics like to hang out at", nonetheless, "it's enjoyed by families across the country". When the party criticised Sports Direct for its inhuman exploitation of workers, the Mail's perma-cretin Dan Hodges was on hand to bravely insist that the company was "favoured by millions of Britons". This is apparently what distinguishes the working class after Marxism: they're the people who have never eaten a falafel, who won't see their favoured brands insulted and who care more than anything about what you dunk in your frothy coffee.
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