We all know there’s an obesity epidemic: you can hardly read a newspaper or turn on the tv without being told some mid numbing statistic such as two thirds of us are overweight or obese and huge amounts of the NHS budget are spent on treating obesity-related illness.
But where did it all begin and how did it happen? We hear about that less often. Once upon a time over 40 years ago the vast majority of us were slim. When I was at secondary school in the seventies there was one just one fat boy out of 30 in my class.
Then in 1974 all that began to change because two very important things happened. The Tories lost their second general election that year, which meant Thatcher went on to become the new leader, while in October McDonald’s opened its very first branch in the UK in Woolwich, south London.
These two seemingly unconnected events would have an enormous impact on the dietary habits of this country. By the time Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, McDonald’s were spreading. I had had my first and only meal in one near Victoria Station, shortly before I went vegetarian (it tasted awful!).
In 1982 McDonald’s moved its UK headquarters to Finchley, Thatcher’s parliamentary constituency, and the following year she opened the building. The two shared the same get rich quick, I’m all right jack, profit rules ethos. The Tories were now about “getting government off people’s backs” which meant rich pickings for fast food companies opening branches on our high streets. One of the first things the Tories did after getting elected was to abolish the nutritional standards for school dinners.
Henceforth obesity began taking off, slowly at first so not many people noticed it. The eighties was after all the decade of acquisitive materialism and fast food chimed perfectly with the ethos of the rat race. Thatcher loved McDonald’s and visited again in 1989 on the 10th anniversary of her prime ministership.
But this time, however, the company was under sustained pressure from a variety of groups – environmental, animal rights, trades unions and anti-capitalist. One group coalesced all these protests into a hard hitting campaign and that was London Greenpeace. Not to be confused with the much larger Greenpeace international, it was as its name implied a London-based collective of people who wanted to radically change society.
Though it was originally concerned with peace/anti-nuclear campaigning by the eighties it was part of the rising tide of animal liberation and green anarchism. In 1985 the group started producing “anti-MuckDonald’s” leaflets and posters and calling for days of action on October 16th – World Food day.
Meanwhile the fact that the company’s HQ – a monstrous edifice adorned with the golden arches and even a “Hamburger University” – was plainly evident on Finchley Road, right next to the tube, hadn’t gone unnoticed. The same year as the first anti-McDonald’s day, two young animal liberationists tried to set fire to the building but were caught. Both went to gaol.
A couple of years later London Greenpeace decided to make the HQ the focus of its World Food Day actions. Over the years many pickets were held and there was even street theatre with a Ronald McDonald lookalike “slaughtering” a pantomime cow in front of passers by.
On one occasion in the late eighties McDonald’s head of security Sid Nicholson was spotted watching the picket with a police officer from Special Branch. This officer was well known for targeting animal rights protesters and he was undoubtedly passing on the details of people who were campaigning against the burger giant.
About a year later five London Greenpeace activists were sued for libel. It soon became clear that McDonald’s had placed spies within the group to gain information on the activists but only much later during the McLibel trial was it revealed that McDonald’s and Special Branch had been swapping information about them. Helen Steel and Dave Morris sued the police and received £10,000 each in an out of court settlement.
But that was just the beginning. It wasn’t until 2011 that the full extent of the secret state’s penetration of this small anarchist collective was uncovered. Two spies from a top secret Special Branch unit called the Special Demonstrations Squad were active in the group between 1984 and 1992. One of them, Robert Lambert, actually part-wrote the What’s Wrong with McDonald’s factsheet that became the subject of the libel writ. His successor, John Dines, was group treasurer at the time the writs were served and was party to the discussions between the defendants, no doubt passing intelligence back to his bosses at Scotland Yard.
What is now apparent with three decades-worth of hindsight is how serious a threat the anti-McDonald’s movement was taken to be. For Thatcher and the Tories, the Big Mac was a potent symbol of the society they wished to create – anti-unions, low pay, quick turnover, wealth driven, extolling a tacky consumerism while treating the environment and animals as mere commodities to be bought and sold for profit.
Anyone who got in the way of their plans was a threat and that included this small band of people, many of whom were unemployed, squatters, and marginalised. There would have been discussions at the highest levels about what to do with these miscreants, how the danger they posed needed to be nipped in the bud. Sid Nicholson – with his police connections – would have been the ideal middleman between the company and Scotland Yard.
When Thatcher visited McDonald’s again in 1989 it would have been at the same time as its executives were deciding to take action. Perhaps she was even party to the decision to hire private investigators to infiltrate London Greenpeace? We may never know for sure but what we can be certain of is that the state and McDonald’s worked hand in hand to try to silence opposition to the Big Mac – without success!