The meat of the issue: Cutting through the 'gammon' discourse...

... and noting that Andrew Neil is a deeply unserious ham.

There are certain debates that return time and time again in the British media — they include the ‘Oxbridge mafia’ one (yes, Cambridge and Oxford graduates dominate too much of the industry), the one where we ask ‘is journalism a profession or a trade?’, and the ‘do people have to work for The Daily Mail’ one (‘no’ is the short answer).

But a more recent one that keeps being regurgitated like a poorly prepared pub meal is the ‘gammon is a slur’ discourse, which seems to be on a one to two-year cycle at the moment. It’s a deeply unserious argument that is reheated whenever the Right wants to show just how little it actually cares about issues of racism and structural inequality. You would have thought that the Sewell report would have been enough, but apparently not.

The latest round of Gammongate was triggered by the ‘veteran’ hack, GB News commander-in-chief, and close personal friend of expensive port, Andrew Neil, who responded to someone who had tweeted, “Gammon”, at him and someone who had said they had recently purchased their first print copy of The Spectator:

Neil has the right to block anyone he wants on Twitter, for any reason he likes, but this particular performative outrage was about more than binning someone who he didn’t want to hear from; he retweeted a fan to give further explanation:

Surely Neil, who recently boasted that GB News will be a channel that “believes in Britain” (as opposed to the BBC which considers Britain to be a kind of shared fever dream), should have a better grasp on facts and history… oh wait.

‘Gammon’ has a storied poetic past. The 17th-century poets, John Marston and John Taylor, both used it as an insult to wield against the Westphalians.

In 1604, Marston wrote in The Malcontent that “the sallow-westphalian gammon-faced zaza cries” while in 1622, Taylor spat in The great O Toole: “Where many a warlike horse and many a nagge mires: Thou kildst the gammon visag’d poorer Westphalians.” It’s strange that a Brexit-fan like Neil isn’t into an insult originally designed for getting at the Germans.

The more recent citation, commonly deployed as a riposte to the right on social media, is from Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel Nicholas Nickleby.

The ‘gammon’ in question is Mr Gregsbury, an MP who Nicholas encounters when he answers an advertisement for a clerk. Dickens describes Gresbury as “a tough, burly, thick-headed gentleman, with a loud voice, a pompous manner, a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them, and, in short, every requisite for a very good member indeed.”

Sounds like a Spectator contributor to me.

The ‘gammon’ passage from Nicholas Nickleby…

The time had been, when this burst of enthusiasm would have been cheered to the very echo; but now, the deputation received it with chilling coldness. The general impression seemed to be, that as an explanation of Mr. Gregsbury’s political conduct, it did not enter quite enough into detail; and one gentleman in the rear did not scruple to remark aloud, that, for his purpose, it savoured rather too much of a 'gammon' tendency.

The meaning of that term—gammon,' said Mr. Gregsbury, 'is unknown to me. If it means that I grow a little too fervid, or perhaps even hyperbolical, in extolling my native land, I admit the full justice of the remark. I am proud of this free and happy country. My form dilates, my eye glistens, my breast heaves, my heart swells, my bosom burns, when I call to mind her greatness and her glory

… has been cited in several previous articles as proof that ‘gammon’, though it went out of fashion for about 174 years before rushing back into the public consciousness in 2012, is an insult long used by white people about white people. Comparing pompous prigs to salty meat is the very British culture that commentators and columnists on the Right are always banging on about.

I can only assume that Andrew Neil declared his race as “gammon” in the recent census or that as a proud Scot he has become confused over the years by Burns’ reference to the haggis as “great chieftain o’ the pudding-race” and decided that he is King Gammon.

In truth, Neil is playing the same game as those tediously unfunny ‘banter’ lads who declare that they now “identify as an attack helicopter”, thinking it’s somehow an incredible own on trans people. The Spectator has belittled and decried hate crime laws over and over, and that’s what Neil is doing in his tweets.

The Right has a habit of accusing the Left of the very things of which it is guilty. So while it constantly harps on about the over-sensitivity of the ‘snowflakes’, right-wing columnists spend thousands of words every week outlining things that have offended them in publications like UnHerd, The Spectator, and The Daily Telegraph. If it’s not sleights to their beloved flag or favourite politician, it’s a complaint that mean people on Twitter should not be able to @ them.

Just as ‘woke’ is not an insult, no matter how much the likes of Neil, ‘Iron’ Mike Graham, Darren Grimes or Julia Hartley-Brewer want it to be so, ‘gammon’ is not a racial slur. It’s an insult — and a fairly childish one at that — but British political discourse has been a playground of childish insults and cheap attacks for as long as we’ve had a politics to talk about.

Either Neil and his fellow ruddy-faced revolutionaries are committed to the right to offend as they so frequently harp on, or they’re a bunch of hypocritical bullies who love to sow but absolutely hate it when the reaping starts. Back in 2018 — and prepare to reach for the ‘Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made A Great Point’ meme — Toby Young wrote in The Spectator of all places that it was ridiculous for his fellow right-wingers to boil over about ‘gammon’.

If we park its poetic and Dickensian roots for a moment and just look at the recent history of ‘gammon’ as a tool for goading those who really don’t like to be goaded, it’s still a very mild insult. Wikipedia’s ‘Gammon (insult)’ page highlights four examples of the term’s use in newspapers and on TV.

In 2004, The Observer referred to the then-chairman of Southhampton FC Rupert Lowe (later to become a Brexit Party MEP) as “gammon-cheeked”. The description checks out:

Caitlin Moran wrote that David Cameron resembled “a slightly camp gammon robot” and “a C-3PO made of ham” in her 2012 book Moranthology, a compilation of her columns for The Times. Again, the description checks out:

You may be spotting a theme here. In 2015, Ruby Tandoh called Great British Bake Off judge Paul Hollywood “a walking gammon joint” and, yep, that also checks out:

Finally, in 2017, Ben Davis tweeted a picture of nine angry members of the BBC Question Time audience and called them “the Great Wall of Gammon”:

Let’s go to the Video Assistant Referee:

Is ‘gammon’ used because the people it’s directed at are mostly white? No. It’s because it’s an easy analogy for their red-faced indignation when their world view is questioned.

It’s also not a class thing either, despite a notorious (now-deleted) tweet by a journalist delivering the galaxy brained take that:

[Gammon is] a loaded insult because it implies, in a sneering way, that the person you’re talking about is working-class. (People aren’t being called pastrami/parma ham/bresaola, are they?

There’s an entire thesis that could be written on the assumptions about class and meat consumption in that single sentence, but you’d have to pay me a lot of money to write it.

I’m almost embarrassed even to be writing this newsletter edition on the topic. But beneath the surface level of ridiculousness, there is a serious point: The British media has an addiction to trivia and debates which diminish or distract from real issues. It’s no accident that ‘gammon’ is back in the debate dojo (“Join me in the debate dojo, Mr Neil!”) now.

The newspapers, talk radio channels, and TV debate shows have had a field day with the Sewell report’s implication that institutional racism doesn’t exist. Getting back into the ‘gammon is a slur’ discourse is just an extension of that jubilation. It’s a ludicrous sideshow that lumps insults in with real racial abuse. And Neil, acting as a carnival barker for GB News — which will be a daily culture war cavalcade — knows exactly what he’s doing.

There is no such thing as anti-gammon discrimination. The highly-paid hams are there across British TV, radio, newspapers, and politics. Going gammon guarantees your views will be sought at every possible occasion. That’s the meat of this argument but we’ll never be allowed to pop an egg on top of it and move on while it serves the likes of Andrew Neil to keep it cooking.