This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday April 8 2012
There have recently been many references in the press, both in Sri Lanka and the UK, to Marie Antoinette. She was the wife of Louis XVI of France who was deposed by the revolting peasants in 1792. Nine months after the execution of Louis, Marie Antoinette was herself tried, convicted of treason and guillotined.
The French people had at first been charmed by her personality and beauty but came to loathe her, accusing “L’Autre-chienne” (“Autrichienne” meaning Austrian (woman) and “Autre-chienne” meaning Other Bitch) of being a promiscuous, callous spendthrift, and of harbouring sympathies for France’s enemies, particularly Austria, her country of origin.
Contemporary sources, such as Mary Wolstencraft and Thomas Jefferson, place the blame for the French Revolution and the subsequent reign of terror on Marie Antoinette. This view is summed up by the phrase “let them eat cake”. There is no evidence that she ever uttered this phrase; It originally appeared in Book VI of the first part (finished in 1767, published in 1782) of Rousseau’s putative autobiography, Les Confessions. “Enfin je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit : Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”When told the peasants had no bread the princess said ‘Why don’t they eat cake?’
Whenever I visit my local Sathosa, I see a framed photograph of Bandula Gunawardena. Judging from that picture, I would guess that he is not being compared to Marie Antoinette on grounds of charm, beauty or personality. It’s to do with the cake-eating thing. Minister Gunawardena apparently asserted that a family of three could live on Rs. 7,500 a month. UNP MP Dr. Harsha de Silva responded: “Minister Bandula Gunawardene’s challenge for a debate on this matter is irrelevant, childish and a waste of time. It is of no consequence to the people of this country that certain ministers and senior officials of this government have become the laughing stock, but what is unpardonable is that the unwise actions of such people bringing misery to the population.”
Over in the UK, The Sun newspaper, frothing for revenge over the Tories’ failure to protect Murdoch, described Chancellor George Osborne as the Marie Antoinette of the 21st century. Marie Antoinette has come to symbolise the indifference of the rulers to the sufferings of ordinary people.
Throughout the hard times of the 1970s, British citizens were exhorted by governments, both Labour and Conservative, to tighten belts and accept wages that did not keep up with inflation.
There was no evidence that the austerity was being shared across all classes. On 31 December 1973, Edward Heath’s Tory government enforced a three-day working week to preserve dwindling fuel supplies. Electricity was switched off on a rota basis between seven a.m. and midnight. Television companies switched off at 10.30pm. Energy Secretary, Patrick Jenkin, won notoriety for advising the nation to “clean our teeth in the dark”. His own house was photographed with all lights blazing.
In the UK currently, the question is not whether the masses should eat cake, but whether they can afford to eat Cornish pasties. The current coalition government have been savagely cutting public services to patch up the mess caused by greedy banksters who continue to draw large salaries and bonuses. In the recent budget, Osborne cut income tax rate for the 300,000 richest households, while 4.4 million pensioners are set to lose out by £84 a year. The strategy was to boost business and the rich by raising tax allowances – and forget about the unemployed and the lowest earners. That old ‘trickle down’ myth again.
Labour MP John Mann zeroed in on one particular aspect of the Budget and asked Osborne when he had last eaten a pasty at Greggs the bakers. Osborne was discombobulated by this and had probably forgotten that his Budget included a VAT increase on Cornish pasties. Greggs chief executive Ken McMeikan denounced Osborne as out of touch, and warned hundreds of jobs were at stake if pasty prices were raised by 20%.
One tweet suggested Osborne was then probably subjected to a Treasury presentation where he was told that pasties were “similar to mini boeufs en croute”.
The greasy spinmeisters went into action and Osborne’s fellow old-Etonian and Bullingdon member David Cameron was ready to fend off the pasty attacks from the press. “I think the last one I bought was from the West Cornwall Pasty Company. I seem to remember I was in Leeds station at the time and the choice was whether to have one of their small ones or one of their large ones. I have got a feeling I opted for the large one, and very good it was too.”
Indefatigable investigative reporters ferreted out the information that the West Cornwall Pasty Company outlet where he thought he enjoyed his last pasty closed two years ago. Gavin Williams, the boss of the West Cornwall Pasty Company, was not interested in Cameron’s endorsement of his product. He wanted ‘clarity and leadership’ from the prime minister.
One disaffected Tory MP reminded The Guardian that it was Osborne who brought in Andy Coulson to handle the media for Cameron. Coulson’s effectiveness was hampered by the fact that he was arrested (and has since been imprisoned) for criminal activities on behalf of the Murdoch empire.
Another said that Osborne misjudged the budget by failing to spot the significance of what has become known as the ‘granny tax’. It is not immediately obvious what is more depressing, the inane antics of the press, the ham-fisted attempts at populism by wealthy politicians or the total disregard of those in power for what ordinary people’s lives are actually like. Politicians insensitive to the suffering of ordinary people while they themselves enjoy a VVIP life-style should remember what happened to Marie Antoinette.