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There Is No Consensus in the U.K. Government on What a Scotch Egg Is

The turning of abstract terms like “substantial meal” into concrete examples illustrates how the government has backed itself into a corner

Boris Johnson stares at a pint of beer in a pub
No, that is not a Scotch egg
Photo by SCOTT HEPPELL/AFP via Getty Images

The U.K. government has no consensus on what a Scotch egg is. After environment minister George Eustice claimed that an egg cocooned by sausage meat could constitute a “substantial meal,” a 10 Downing Street spokesperson said that “bar snacks do not count.” Further, they claimed that “it is a well established practice in the hospitality industry as to what does.” Counterpoint: there is not.

Having no consensus on the ontology of a Scotch egg is little more than a moderately funny piece of discourse that a desperate food writer might mine for content on a Monday. And yet, the government’s sticking to the language of “a substantial meal” — which is borrowed from the “table meal” of the the U.K. Licensing Act (2003) — reflects a wider knowledge vacuum about how both pubs and restaurants actually operate as it prepares to put them into tier two coronavirus restrictions. Newer legislation, designed for these new restrictions that come into force on 2 December, stipulates that pubs “that cannot operate as restaurants” must shut.

So: what’s this rule actually for? For Rishi Sunak, it’s a means of avoiding spending money on grants for pubs forced to close, by permitting them to open under no matter how spurious conditionalities. For Boris Johnson’s public health messaging, it’s an opportunity to shore up the narrative of alcohol + people = coronavirus, which resulted in the now-scrapped 10 p.m. hospitality curfew, under which pubs were allowed to serve pints for pints’ sake. For publicans. it’s both a nightmare and a nonsense — a weighing up of risk of being fined for contravening a law that not even the people making the law can unilaterally agree on.

There is absolutely no possible way to reach consensus on where serving a “substantial meal” and “operate as restaurants” starts and ends, because “meals” and “restaurants” aren’t unilaterally definable. Government ministers opining, separately, on Scotch eggs being and not being substantial; Cornish pasties being substantial, being not substantial, and being substantial but only if they come with chips or salad, is an unparalleled illustration of how arbitrary those classifications are, and how their actual purpose — to stop people from drinking — would be infinitely better served by shutting down pubs with proportionate financial support.

What this converting of abstract phrases into concrete examples fails to grasp is that the abstractions impinge on people’s lived realities — not just one’s ability to drink a pint, which is somewhat trivial, but pubs’ ability to keep staff in work that pays their rent — before that conversion happens.

Just like a new report into coronavirus transmission in hospitality, which reveals the government’s failure to publicly join the dots between its introduction of restrictions on capacity, social distancing, and table service and the continued appeal from the hospitality industry that it is not a source of transmission, the lack of consensus on Scotch eggs is what happens when policymakers apply a reactive solution to an uncertainty — here, the seemingly prosaic definition of a “substantial meal” as a means of reducing coronavirus transmission in pubs — instead of a proactive one, having previously feared the risk of seeming unreasonable and/or unpopular.

To apply this to pubs: if there is a public health argument for restrictions on socialising with alcohol alone — and according to this new government report, there is — then the uncertainty mindset, per strategy professor Vaughn Tan, would have dictated proactively closing pubs, unilaterally, with proportionate financial support for as long as was necessary. Ministers did not do this, because it would be manifestly unpopular. Now, they are applying the reactive solution — trying to produce an ontology for bar snacks to justify abstract legalese — and suffering the consequences: confused publicans, a ridiculing public, and having to talk about Scotch eggs on the radio.