ciaranon's blog

A Modest Meat Licence Proposal?

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

                                     Jonathan Swift (1729)


When Jonathan Swift proffered his solution to the problem of the urban poor in Dublin in 1729 he caused an immediate sensation. His pamphlet, A Modest Proposal has since become a classic text in Irish history and literature and set a high water-mark for radical freedom of speech in colonial Ireland. The central thrust of his solution to the city's decline (which in the current orthodox view was due to overpopulation) was to suggest that his fellow citizens ought to simply eat the excess children. He delivered his terrifying proposal in beautiful and prosaic language. By subtly equating the children of the Irish poor to livestock, he divided opinion and sparked debate.

When the U.K. Meat Licencing Law (2012) was first mooted, Swift's tongue-in-cheek pamphlet was something that immediately sprang to mind. The searing and incisive indictment of colonial misrule seems to me directly comparable to this proposed law. The MLL plays with current conceptions of inferiority. It asks us to analyse our hierarchical structure of a food chain from which we have become detached - and yet still feed fat upon. In this brief post I aim to ask what direction the MLL might take, were it to adopt a more Swiftian route.

The crux of Swifts argument lay in his direct assault on the supposed wealth of the nation - its people. It did so by suggesting that some people were more important than others and that their children were less of a drain on society than those of the urban poor. The logic of the piece depends on the reader accepting inter alia that there is a hierarchy, and that those at the top are there by right and legitimately so. The MLL also depends on this logic, by forcing us to accept that by consuming meat in the commercial 21st century way (that is: by purchasing it in ASDA or Tesco, wrapped in cellophane) is to admit that the majority of those living in the UK accept the benefits of the mass slaughter of animals, but are unwilling to contribute to the process directly. The MLL, if successful, would require us all to confront our constructed hierarchy. So far, so good - but Swift was not serious, and did not attempt to make a law. So why make a comparison?

My argument here is that as the MLL currently stands it can hope to have but a limited impact. Take these as absolutes: it will not succeed, and will not be an effective law by 2012, or by 2020. For this we can thank the absurdity of the law itself, the economic cost of such an endeavour, and the probable lack of public support. By contrast, Swift's proposal (a much more absurd one) had a contemporary effect, caused debate and clamour and is held up all over the world as an example of how an acute satire can really wound. So how did he do it, and what can we learn from it? 

Swift's proposal was horrendous, it was macabre. It was written by a man that was relatively famous and was identified as the author within a very short time frame. It was popularized, reprinted, lionized. It was written beautifully, simply and with logic. It was hilarious, but it stung. Rather than seeing the MLL as a test-law that will fail, why not use this vulgarity, this irreverence that it contains to its full potential? Why not take the Swiftian route and use the rich potential for a public satire contained in the MLL proposal to its fullest expression? The more public the better - debates, documentary, newspaper columns. Make it a 21st century pageantry - take the piss, attack middle class complacency and point out the inconsistency of our position, how uncomfortable we are with our grazing habits. When the dust settles the artistic, moral and legal goals of the project might well have been better served by such a ballsy move.

                                          | C.