How does Britain love Jamie Oliver? Let us count the ways. It is near-impossible to criticise the onetime Naked Chef — now TV celebrity, restaurateur and multimillionaire — whose affable, cheeky personality has gained him a cult following since his 1999 screen debut. Like Gordon and Nigella, he belongs within that hallowed circle of first-name-only culinary figures — no mean feat with such a common name.
But then Oliver is no stranger to pulling off admirable feats. Besides his celebrity chefdom, the 40-year-old is as noted for his charitable endeavours. In 2005, Oliver launched the Feed Me Better campaign, accompanied by the television show Jamie’s School Dinners. By entering school canteens to probe children’s diets (nutritionally empty junk like pizza and chips), Oliver also entered the political sphere. The programme led to the banishment of the infamous Turkey Twizzlers after more than 200,000 people signed an online petition, and under the public pressure whipped up by the show Tony Blair agreed to improve school meals. The campaign won Oliver Channel 4’s “Most Inspiring Political Figure of 2005”.
Ten years later, Oliver seems to be taking another shot at the title with his sugar tax campaign. He recently appeared before the House of Commons Health Select Committee and lobbied David Cameron for the introduction of a 20 per cent tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, in a selfless attempt to reduce the waistlines of the two-thirds of Britons classified as overweight or obese.
So how could one overrate him? Shouldn’t we bow down before St Jamie or at least make him Prime Minister? But Jamie Oliver isn’t a politician. He’s a chef, using global celebrity to try and push through Bills with which many elected politicians disagree.
His words before the Select Committee demonstrated both the popular appeal that got him through the parliamentary door, and his unsuitability to speak authoritatively on such issues. The food industry is like a child, he said, and “when my kid is a little bit naughty, gets a bit lairy, it goes on the naughty step”. Such populist language may work on cookery programmes but it rides roughshod over the nuanced policies and intricate regulations that comprise governmental food policy.
Any means to an end, perhaps. If Oliver’s pressurisation of the government leads to less obesity, then he can be forgiven. But will it? Evidence suggests that his previous campaigns have not been the long-term successes that the initial praise implied. Reports in 2011 showed 400,000 children having deserted school dinners since junk food was banned, prompting the then Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, to tell the British Medical Association that “lecturing people” can be “counterproductive”. Interference such as Oliver’s sparks a stubborn reaction in people who refuse to kowtow to the nanny state.
Such has been the reaction to the sugar tax. The Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson put it most memorably: “You rocket-munching millionaire, telling people they’re not allowed a bloody Curly Wurly! Actually, sod off, just sod off. If folk want a Twirl, let them have a Twirl!”
Then there is Oliver’s own apparent hypocrisy. In the 42 restaurants in his Jamie’s Italian chain, he has added a 10p surcharge on fizzy drinks. But this doesn’t apply to puddings such as his Drunken Sour Cherry Frangipane (58g sugar per serving) or Epic Brownie (76g). NHS guidelines recommend a maximum of 90g of sugar per day. Granted, Oliver advocates an 80:20, treat yourself approach to eating — and his sugar tax is designed to tackle sugary beverages, not food — but the double standards still stick in the throat.
Put aside the question of whether adding an extra few pence to the price of a two-litre bottle of supermarket cola would really deter the sugar-addicted. The real question is, should Oliver be exploiting his fame as a celebrity chef in the political sphere?
The rights of the House of Lords were questioned after the unelected body blocked tax credit reforms endorsed by the elected House of Commons. Jamie Oliver might not yet be Lord Oliver — though perhaps that is only a matter of time. But as with the Lords, the fact that an unelected member of the public, celebrity or not, thinks he can force the hand of elected politicians must cause concern.
Oliver means well. His campaigns are not, or not just, publicity stunts: he does want the public to eat better. But thanks to social media and constant exposure, everyone thinks they’re a politician. Antonio Carluccio, in whose Neal Street restaurant Oliver gained early kitchen experience, recently lamented that the Naked Chef has become someone “who wants it all. He has done well, but I believe at some cost. It’s like a drug, when you see your name everywhere. Maybe he wants to go down in history as the man.” If Oliver does — if he truly wants to change policy and the health of future generations — he should stand for Parliament. Until then, Jamie, get back in the kitchen.