2007 - 2022

Libertarian Authoritarianism

As the Omicron variant lays waste to another Christmas holiday period the airwaves and timelines are filled with ‘the hospitality industry’ wailing as their trade faces another hit. Caught between the end of furlough and Rishi Sunak’s Californian hols the businesses in Scotland are in a Perfect Storm of Sturgeon’s caution about public health and the Exchequer’s finances. What bothers me about another broadcast or feature article from Tom Kerridge or Nick Nairn is the sense of entitlement. Everyone is finding this hard, everyone is struggling. Why do restauranteurs and millionaire chefs get all of the focus?

‘Hospitality’ is a broad church but your celebrity chefs have become media fixtures and their sob stories are now part of the surround-sound. Yet this is an industry marked by low pay, exploitation, long and inhospitable hours, and bullying. Much of this is ignored as all of the food writers are fully ’embedded’ with the chefs in a totally unhealthy relationship. It’s significant that it was The Times that broke the story about Tom Kitchin’s behaviour in his Edinburgh restaurant (‘Shaken staff lift lid on ‘hell’ Kitchin‘): “Twelve former employees of the Kitchin Group have told The Times of how they experienced sexual harassment across the restaurants or were abused, denied food, water, lavatory breaks or proper rest during shifts of up to 18 hours. Many claim to have lost significant amounts of weight and suffered mental health problems.”

Paul Lewis revealed that Kitchin took his own staff’s tips: “Tom Kitchin paid himself and his wife Michaela up to £700 a month each from gratuities earned by the front of house employees at the Scran & Scallie, a gastropub. Another director was allegedly allocated a monthly payment of up to £2,000 between 2015 and 2020.”

This isn’t isolated in the industry which remains resolutely immune to unionisation and workers’ rights. I have total solidarity with staff facing job cuts and businesses facing the nightmare scenario of government pronouncements saying “don’t go out” with no financial support. But Stephen Jardine called the hospitality industry “the glue that holds society together” and the trade is being elevated to a status that is bizarre.

The problem points to a wider issue in our understanding of the crisis.

Individual industries and sectors all wail about their own situation as if they operate in complete isolation. Each speaks of their own unique problems and how they are suffering terribly. Here’s the news: we all are. There is no separation between ‘public health’ and ‘business’. It’s as if we have forgotten entirely that we have collective interest at all. It’s as if Thatcher’s mantra that “there is no such thing as society” has come to roost forty years on.

The public narrative is that the (Scottish) government is out to ‘get’ the hospitality industry and that special exemption and funding should be endlessly carved out for them. But they have been deified above all other industries because a) they have media profile and b) the journalists frequent their restaurants. But how many of the general public have the resources for fine dining in the pandemic? The hospitality industry is a broad term and there’s no doubt that small independent businesses are suffering far and beyond the big chains, but if we are going to hear from the sector let’s hear from the workers and the staff often paid low wages for long hours, not just the celebrity chefs. It’s a very First World problem to not be able to eat out at a restaurant. Fine dining has been elevated to a media obsession at the same time as foodbank use has sky-rocketed. This is a media framing and a story we tell ourselves about our society that is at odds with reality.

There are also other ‘sectors’ and communities this narrative drowns out. What about single parents, older people, shop-workers, the social workers mopping up the chaos that’s going on behind the scenes, the bin workers, the staff of chemists and post offices, the people administering the vaccination at an astonishing rate up and down the country? To reprise an old Tory phrase “we’re all in this together” and the sort of special pleading from individual sectors goes against this understanding.

Beyond this the whole understanding of how we respond to crisis mirrors our other actions. As with the climate emergency, any actions must be the most minimal and cautious as possible, almost as if there was no real emergency at all. At all costs nothing must be done which impings on business interests or in any way impinge on western lifestyle which has at its core certain sacrosanct activities (for some). The most essential of these are: the ability to fly anywhere at very low cost at any time you chose; access to cheap alcohol.

There’s a sort of narcissism in all of this. We have all been reduced to understanding the world purely in our own terms. This hyper-individualism fuels both the anti-vaccine movement and the new phenomenon we can call Libertarian Authoritarianism. The 99 Tory MPs who rejected plans for vaccine certificates despite surging infections and personal lobbying by the prime minister will all be enthusiastic supporters of the raft of repressive measures coming down the line.

Andrea Leadsom, former leader of the House of Commons, said: “This is a slippery slope down which I do not want to slip,” adding that it was “truly appalling” to justify the measures by saying they were less authoritarian than those in other countries. Another former minister, Tim Loughton said: “We cannot head for the hills with kneejerk emergency measures every time a new variant comes along.” Miriam Cates MP claimed there had been “permanent change to the understanding of what liberty is”. Her colleague Anthony Mangnall urged: “We cannot continue to terrify people.”

Yet despite their fine rhetoric none of these civil rights warriors will be opposing the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill which effectively criminalises peaceful protest in Britain and allows people to be jailed for 51 weeks for protesting. The hypocrisy of these zealots is astonishing. They want to protect business as usual at all costs in a public health emergency the likes of which we have never seen before, yet will turn a blind eye as their own government initiates legislation more suited to a dictatorship.

Under the new legislation – with amendments rushed through to avoid scrutiny – police powers are hugely enhanced and our civil liberties are under fundamental attack. George Monbiot has described some of the results:

“It would become a criminal offence to obstruct in any way major transport works from being carried out, again with a maximum sentence of 51 weeks. This looks like an attempt to end meaningful protest against road-building and airport expansion. Other amendments would greatly expand police stop and search powers. The police would be entitled to stop and search people or vehicles if they suspect they might be carrying any article that could be used in the newly prohibited protests, presumably including placards, flyers and banners. Other new powers would grant police the right to stop and search people without suspicion if they believe that protest will occur “in that area”. Anyone who resists being searched could be imprisoned for – you guessed it – up to 51 weeks.”

“Perhaps most outrageously, the amendments contain new powers to ban named people from protesting. The grounds are extraordinary, in a nation that claims to be democratic. We can be banned if we have previously committed “protest-related offences”. Thanks to the draconian measures in the rest of the bill – many of which pre-date these amendments – it will now be difficult to attend a protest without committing an offence. Or we can be banned if we have attended or “contributed to” a protest that was “likely to result in serious disruption”. Serious disruption, as the bill stands, could mean almost anything, including being noisy. If you post something on social media that encourages people to turn up, you could find yourself on the list. Anyone subject to one of these orders, like a paroled prisoner, might be required to present themselves to the authorities at “particular times on particular days”. You can also be banned from associating with particular people or “using the internet to facilitate or encourage” a “protest-related offence”.

So as we hear the whines from celebrity chefs and marvel at the Conservatives’ principled stand against vaccine passports let us remember that it was this government that took your rights away under the cover of the pandemic.



Comments (9)

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  1. Squigglypen says:

    Yep. Are we the only two that have noticed?

  2. SleepingDog says:

    Since when has refusing to accept the consequences of risk been part of running a business (many of which fail outside of pandemics anyway)? Isn’t bailing out business supposed to be frowned upon in survival-of-the-fittest economics?

    And what kind of people will want to join, or remain in, a police force geared towards political oppression of people who just want to save the planet?

    None of this party political hypocrisy should be new or surprising for people with a basic grasp of British parliamentary history. The Conservatives have never been champions of liberty (which I guess is why the new kid on the block called themselves Liberals), and democracy has always been a dirty word for them, whilst the deregulation they have pursued since Thatcher is the very opposite of law and order. You can trace a direct line from the government militia thugs murdering pro-democracy demonstrators at Peterloo all the unbroken way to current Conservative anti-democracy legislation.

  3. Lindsey Spowage says:

    Which is why I never eat out at elite resturants …. not because I couldn’t afford it occasionally, but because my money is going into the wrong pockets and honestly how much “better” can food be? Snobbery …

  4. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    You are spot on here! BBC Scotland has for long periods acted as a PR service for a few (Tory, unionist and arrogantly hostile to independence) spokespersons for particular sectors of hospitality. It presents these as representative of the entire sector, but, essentially, they represent employers, mainly at the ‘top’ end of the sector.

    They did this during the Brexit campaign, when they presented the Protestant Boys of the Scottish Fishermen’s (sic) Federation as representatives of the entire fishing industry in Scotland, whereas they are a very small group of wealthy seagoing trawler owners who are significant donors to the Tory coffers.

    With regard to conduct of ‘celebrity’ chefs and bullying, we have had several years of programmes showing, with obvious BBC approval of Gordon Ramsay being abusive and threatening to staff, with public humiliation being common. This is presented as being the way such ‘high standards’ are instituted and maintained. Very many of the many other food programmes have a similar ‘demanding’ message – unless skivvies are hounded and dehumanised then they will be slackers.

    1. Bill says:

      I once attended a course at Nick Nairn’s establishment. Speaking to a member of staff, he assured me that in all kitchens where he had worked, when the pressure was on, the screaming, shouting and generalised bullying was extant. It was the only way to get the service accomplished. I told him that I had worked in a frontline blood transfusion laboratory in a major teaching hospital and had faced even greater pressure than that of a kitchen – and had never heard anyone resort to raising voices or shouting and screaming. He seemed confused that such places could exist.


  5. Leslie Cunningham says:

    An excellent article! I was shocked to read the information about Tom Kitchin (and, by the way, I certainly can’t afford to eat in any of his establishments).

  6. DaveL says:

    While agreeing with the main thrust, this bit had me wondering: “the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill which effectively criminalises peaceful protest in Britain”.
    Up till now, I had been thinking, well at least it can only be an England & Wales Bill. After checking, as far as I can see, only limited sections, relating to driving offences and extraction of information from electronic devices, can apply to Scotland – have I got that wrong?

    1. No I think your right but its a slippery slope and I’m concerned about loss of civil liberties in the rUK. As we saw with the SpyCops scandal once a policy is in effect in England it frequently has crossover – see for eg at G8 Summit and COP26.

  7. Roddy says:

    As a musician who was lucky enough to play gigs this summer and into autumn litterly all over Scotland ( I play weddings and tourist bars ) I know for a matter of fact that the main problem facing the hospitality industry is the lack of staff .
    Bar workers ,hotel staff waiters and caitering staff will have very little problem seeking employment the hotel they work in goes under .
    Ok this sounds a wee bit callous but it’s generally true .
    I also know that the local family owned bars where it’s been hard will have loyal customers who will show loyality when we are allowed back .I do also sometimes work for the chain venues and have fosterd relationships with the bigger fish ,the ones who own a chain and have relied on cheaper labour and shifting higher units with footfall through the door .
    ( I’m speaking about the mostly highland and rural hospitality venues here I don’t really okay in the central belt where it tends to be dominated by the complete sharks )

    The big guys in rural northern Scotland are always expanding and always at the stage of overreach . They will suffer ! The passing of these chains won’t be a loss to the rural comunity ,it might be a positive thing for rural communities where perhaps the hotels and restaurants will find themselves back in local hands .
    I was recently talking to a wedding photographer who glibbly explained that if anything covid had been a boost to his workflow as it had squeezed out the competition ! His point was that because he was dedicated he had stuck around where the more money driven or more hobby photographers had sut up shop .
    In some ways I couldn’t help but see the logic of his argument ,without denigraiting anybody it certainly seems to have thined out the wedding industry .The same thing might happen to the unflexibale big fish in the general hospitality industry leaving space for a kinder more local more specialised industry to emerge .

    I know you are making bigger points and have written to the high standard we expect from you ,it’s a great article .
    Happy new year folks .

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