In the United Kingdom, a number of grocery chains ranging from Aldi’s to Sainsbury’s unveiled a new line of vegan options for the start of 2019. One such chain rolled out a rather unassuming vegan sausage roll, just one cruelty-free option amid a sea of animal products. But this one little veggie roll seemed to represent all that the conservative right had come to loathe. Right-wing news journalists are lashing out on social media, and an off-shoot of France’s yellow vest movement materialized in Manchester to protest the roll as a threat to the nation itself. “We Want Our Country Back” the vest slogans read.
In her 2015 publication The Vegan Studies Project, Laura Wright forwards the idea of anti-vegan animal nationalism, a concept positing that veganism upsets notions of national identity. Veganism is frequently associated with liberalism gone wild, a marker of snowflake privilege. More insidiously, however, since many vegan dishes hail from non-Western countries (especially mock-meats), it is also disparagingly associated with the “other,” the “east,” and uncivilized, unevolved barbary. In that respect, the resistance to veganism is often highly racialized.
The United Kingdom makes for an especially interesting case study in anti-vegan animal nationalism. Across the many centuries of British colonialism, Britain’s “beefeater” culture was heralded as factual evidence as to the superiority of Great Britain. It became a marker of civilization itself. Furthermore, it became a justification for the violent oppression of the potato-eating Irish, rice-eating Indians, and other colonial conquests in Africa, Asia, and the Carribean where plant-based eating was the norm. Political discourse of the era pointed to vegan eating as a marker of weakness and a veritable plea for Britain’s paternalistic, merciful rule.
In the era of Brexit, the Greggs protest demonstrates that these same food-based cultural tropes about the “other” persist as the slight majority of the country’s voters chose to remove themselves from the European Union to “protect their borders” and clamp down on immigration from regions deemed undesirable. Food politics, it would seem, feed ethnocentrism.
But Britain is today a very multicultural and diverse country, with, for the purposes of our discussion, restaurants and food shops serving the culinary needs and nostalgias of its former colonies as well as those regions never colonized by Britain at all but woven into the culture through processes of globalization. Food is so integral to culture and belonging, it is no wonder that these shifts on the high street are causing discomfort for some. For a population of conservatives harkening to an age of imperialism in which whites predominated in the “home country” and freely enjoyed the wealth extracted from colonized peoples of color (who were kept at a distance across oceans and continents), this modern multiculturalism disrupts this legacy of guiltless privilege and effortless oppression.
And so, when Greggs launched its simple vegan sausage roll, literally inserting the otherized, liberalized, orientalized plant-based fodder into the most cherished of all British meaty fare, conservatives were forced into a reckoning. For me, a vegan of nearly two decades, Greggs vegan sausage rolls offer me a chance to explore British cuisine in all its multicultural glory without imposing violence on other animals. But they also celebrate Britain’s resistance to the right-wing backlash that has temporarily thrown the country asunder. Dare I say, Greggs veggie rolls represent our beautifully persistent march toward a more equitable and diverse society.