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Why Politicians Are So Obsessed with Hot Drinks

Wait, is ordering a latte at Costa the height of middle-class frippery, or the most common thing in the world?

by Tom Whyman
04 May 2017, 12:13pm

Another week, another politician says something truly fucking idiotic about coffee. This time it was the turn of Antony Calvert, Tory candidate for the marginal seat of Wakefield, who yesterday morning tweeted:

Calvert's comments follow hot on the heels of those of prospective Manchester mayor and sentient Playmobil man Andy Burnham. Shortly before Theresa May rescued him by calling a snap general election, Burnham was being roundly roasted for a tweet in which he stated, in relation to then-fresh Tory noises on immigration policy:

Working class people, after all, never drink barista coffee. The real salt of the earth, like me and Andy Burnham, get our coffee from a well.

These tweets also serve as a reminder of one of the many, many blunders associated with Owen Smith's clownish Labour leadership challenge last summer, in which – as part of some deranged attempt to seem normal – he appeared to deny having any knowledge of what a cappuccino is. On receiving his coffee in Pontypridd's Prince's cafe, Owen Smith stopped mid-sentence to tell reporters, "I tell you it is the first time I have ever been given little biscuits and a posh cup in here... seriously, I would have a mug normally."

After all, nothing says "inspirational leader" like approaching one of the most basic products that your voters consume every day with a put-on display of animal suspicion.

Then there's Louise Mensch, who appeared on Have I Got News for You while still a Tory MP, attempting to discredit Occupy activists for protesting capitalism while drinking Starbucks coffee and using mobile phones.


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So what's going on here? Why do politicians seem to think that we think Costa coffee is the height of hoity-toity poshness? Costa's parent company Whitbread, which also owns Harvester and Premier Travel Inns, has a strategy of rapid expansion of all areas to the UK, indiscriminate of social status. So why do politicians get in such a twist?

I think we can identify two distinct strands of logic, one of which is operative behind Mensch's comments, the other behind Burnham and Smith's.

The logic behind Mensch's comments should be familiar enough: "Ah, I see you want to overthrow capitalism! And yet you rely on the capitalist economy to provide you with the basic services and products you need to survive! How curious!"

This is a logic that is profoundly stupid. The whole point of protesting capitalism is that we aren't being offered any alternative. The vast majority of people can't just "step back" from the evils of the system – they would starve to death. The likes of Mensch must, I think, know this on at least some level – after all, they aren't disparaging lefties for drinking water, or eating bread. It's almost always coffee. Yet they ignore the fact that the most convenient place on the high street to get baked goods, water and, yes, hot drinks are coffee shops. I'm sure if there was an anarcho-syndicalist vegan cafe right on the steps of St Paul's, the Occupy protesters would have gone there first.

"From all this, one thing becomes clear: we desperately need more MPs who have a genuinely lived, robustly practical understanding of how the world they seek to govern actually functions."

The logic that Burnham and Smith's comments exhibit, by contrast, is that of authentocracy. The general idea here is that there is some "authentically" working class way to be. Rather, working class identity subsists in the way in which one navigates a network of cultural tropes: accents, political attitudes, consumer preferences. This is why, say, prominent millionaire and east London boy done good Lord Alan Sugar can still count as "working class", but you, reading this – earning minimum wage at your bar job despite growing up in a three bed house where your mum cooked with extra-virgin olive oil – never will.

The significance of coffee, in the context of authentocracy, is that at some point in the past it was the case that working class people in the UK would only drink tea, or if they consumed coffee would only use instant granules. Barista coffee, cafetieres and so forth were an affectation for the professional classes. But, again, this is impossible for young people to imagine: because coffee shops have been a prominent fixture in pretty much every public space, at least since the early 2000s.

This is why Burnham and Smith's comments seem so manifestly ridiculous. I'm not sure they're capable of realising this themselves, because of course neither of them have lived in the real world since the early 2000s: they're career politicians, and have existed for most of their adult lives crouched behind the various lines dividing the governors from the governed. It would therefore not surprise me at all that these men are genuinely ignorant of how society, in the past couple of decades, has changed.

Calvert, for his part, isn't even an MP yet, although he's been consistently running as one since at least 2010. During this time, Calvert's obviously been getting a lot of practice in for Westminster, because his tweet manages to combine both anti-coffee logics with an artistry that is, in its own way, masterful.

Let's have a look at that tweet again:

According to Calvert, by striding into Costa directly after criticising the Tories for being anti-working class, this man reveals the depth of his poncy middle-classness and proves himself too hypocritical to bother engaging with constructively. If he buys coffee in Costa then he can't "really" be working class, and that means he isn't entitled to criticise Calvert for being anti-working class. Wonderful stuff. The sort of political discourse that wants to make you kiss your fingers like an Italian chef.

From all this, one thing becomes clear: we desperately need more MPs who have a genuinely lived, robustly practical understanding of how the world they seek to govern actually functions. More MPs who regularly find themselves stumbling hungover into a Costa, to order a cappuccino like it's the most normal thing the world. Because, you know, it is.

@HealthUntoDeath