Pork Legs Are Shaking Up British Politics

How gammon, a traditional English meal, became a leftist insult—and why it's igniting a debate about racism

Shrink-wrapped gammon joints
Gammon joints on sale in an Aldi store in London on February 15, 2018 (Peter Summers / Reuters)

It’s the sort of thing you’re more likely to find at a country pub than at the center of a political debate. But in the U.K., the meat product known as gammon has recently become shorthand for a certain type of middle-aged white man. He’s a Conservative voter, he likely supports Brexit, and his habitual rantings about immigration and the scourge of political correctness have caused him to turn so red as to resemble a pan-fried slab of ham. Hence, a gammon.

It’s not exactly the most intuitive of insults. After all, gammon is an old-fashioned English dish made from a hind leg of pork, sometimes topped with caramelized pineapple. Yet it has become the British left’s insult of choice, one that is kicking up an impassioned debate about racism—against certain white men.

The use of gammon as a political slight dates as far back as 2010, when the Times of London columnist Caitlin Moran dubbed former Prime Minister David Cameron “a C-3PO made of ham” whose “resemblance to a slightly camp gammon robot is extraordinary.”

The insult took on more widespread use during the U.K.’s general election last year, when one Twitter commentator made a collage of BBC Question Time audience members—all of whom were middle-aged white men with similarly flushed faces—that he called the “Great Wall of gammon.” Now, the term is most often used by the British political left, specifically younger supporters of the U.K. opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Name-calling is nothing new in politics—if anything, it’s become the norm. Petty insults have been a fixture in British politics for years, with lawmakers calling each other everything from “dimwit” to “muttering idiot.” In the U.S., President Trump has employed a multitude of adjectives to mock his political opponents, foreign leaders, and the media (“crazy,” “crooked,” “lyin’,” and “failing,” to name a few).

But unlike these slights, “gammon” refers not to an individual, but to a group of people—one that, in this case, is defined by age and political persuasion. The insult is like the mirror image of “snowflake,” a slight used by the political right to denote a hypersensitive generation of young people on the left who struggle to deal with dissenting viewpoints and therefore require “safe spaces” lest they get “triggered.”

But some U.K. political commentators argue that “gammon” takes it too far. As the Times columnist Lucy Fisher noted Monday, the term  has “stretched beyond coherence to encompass as many people as possible who vote the ‘wrong’ way and hold the ‘wrong’ views.” Others, such as the Northern Irish lawmaker Emma Little-Pengelly, have suggested the term is ageist and racist for its emphasis on age and skin color.

Some have defended the term. As the Guardian columnist and political activist Owen Jones argued Monday, “affluent white men with reactionary opinions are not a race. White people mocking other white people over their skin color is not racism.”

Jones’s assertion raises an important question in the gammon debate: Is it racist for white leftists to insult other white people by calling them “gammon”? Can a person of a given race be racist toward one of their own? Jones says no, but that answer does not take into account the phenomenon of internalized racism, which typically involves members of minority communities adopting the attitudes of the dominant culture as the norm—even when that means embracing racist attitudes about themselves.

Matt Zarb-Cousin, a former Corbyn spokesperson who helped popularize the use of “gammon” within Britain’s new left, argues that calling a white man “gammon” isn’t racist precisely because gammons do not constitute a race. “[W]hile there are striking aesthetic resemblances across the gammon constituency, gammon isn’t a race, it’s a lifestyle choice driven by warm ale,” he wrote in February. But others, like the British journalist Tanya Gold, argue the racial connotation makes it tantamount to hate speech. “It’s like calling a Jew a k**e or mocking African Americans for eating fried chicken,” she wrote Wednesday in GQ. “So much of this sounds like American culture wars transported, horribly and no doubt eternally, to England.”

The gammon debate has nearly reached the upper echelons of British government. When a spokesman for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May was asked where the premier stood on the issue, he said they had not discussed it. At least one political correspondent seemed to take the silence as a kind of tacit approval, writing, “PM’s spokesman would not say she thinks the term gammon is racist.”