Fiona McCade: Making a meal of obese health minister

Belgium has appointed someone weighing 20st to look after the nation’s wellbeing. Many there think the choice isn’t credible. But when did politicians ever do as they say, asks Fiona McCade

Belgian health minister Maggie De Block, who says: 'I know Im not a model, but you have to see whats inside, not the packaging'. Picture: Getty
Belgian health minister Maggie De Block, who says: 'I know Im not a model, but you have to see whats inside, not the packaging'. Picture: Getty

Back in the late 1980s, Kenneth Clarke was appointed Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Health. Clarke was – and is – a hefty chap with a taste for large cigars and pints of beer. How we rolled our eyes and laughed at the irony. Not long after, Peter Fraser became minister of state for health and home affairs at the Scottish Office. His multiple chins, love of curry and shares in a South African vineyard led him to call himself “The minister for the Scottish diet”. We couldn’t help but smile.

Nobody should expect any politician to be a role model, but one thing’s for sure, here in Britain we give ours a lot more leeway than they do in Belgium. The new government that took office in Brussels last Saturday has appointed the country’s most popular politician, Maggie De Block, as minister of public health. Not only is De Block universally liked, she was a practising GP for 25 years before entering politics, so the health portfolio would appear to be perfect for her, wouldn’t it?

On the face of it, yes, of course. De Block certainly has all the qualifications and experience necessary to pontificate on health matters. However, she weighs over 20 stone and she freely admits that she likes her food. Given that the World Health Organisation estimates that half of all adult Belgians are overweight and over 20 per cent can be classed as obese, media commentators are asking if she is really a credible person to be in charge of the nation’s health. They worry that people are more likely to “snigger” at her “obvious corpulence” than listen to her plans for a healthier Belgium.

My first thought when I saw De Block was: how can she stand up and tell people they need to keep fit and eat their five-a-day when she looks like that? And my second thought was: how can she stand up?

She says: “I know I’m not a model, but you have to see what’s inside, not the packaging,” which is fine if you’re just an ordinary citizen, but when you’re the spokesperson for the health of a whole country, you have to accept that your packaging is going to be examined. De Block is taking the classic politician’s stance of “Do as I say, not as I do”. But hang on a minute – why shouldn’t she?

There is absolutely no historical precedent for a politician to embody everything they say. Hypocrisy is the default setting for all elected representatives. Why should De Block be any different from everybody else and why on Earth does anybody expect her to be?

In the United Kingdom, fit, non-smoking, light-drinking health ministers are rarer than transport ministers who get the bus. Ministers for Agriculture don’t tend to be farmers and people always get excited if the Chancellor of the Exchequer has any sort of economics qualification. Occasionally, the Minister for Culture will go and see a play, if the ticket is free. We allow aristocratic, Eton and Oxbridge-educated millionaires to tell us that we need to tighten our belts and knuckle under, because we’re going to get poorer before things get better again, then we watch them give themselves an 11 per cent pay rise.

We allow these same people to continue to lecture us on the evils of benefit fraud, while in 2013 they claimed more expenses than they did at the very peak of the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal. This is what the UK will routinely put up with, but, in Belgium, if an overweight doctor has an opinion on health matters, it’s an outrage.

Alone of her profession, Maggie De Block is expected to be a paragon of virtue. It’s like her detractors are saying, OK, the line has been drawn. From this point on, every politician has to walk the walk and talk the talk. And we’re starting with the fat Flemish lass. Yes, you, Maggie De Block. You’re the first politician in history from whom we are going to demand absolute honesty and straightforwardness. You are going to be a role model. Yes, we know it’s never been done before, but like we said, we’re starting with you, so come on, if you want to be minister for public health, what are you going to do about your weight?

Like every other minister, De Block is first and foremost a public servant. She just happens to be managing a brief which consists of creating and implementing her government’s national health policy. She is an organiser; a director; an architect. What she is not is a life coach, nutritionist, medical practitioner or personal trainer to each and every individual citizen of Belgium.

Whatever her physical limitations, she has already proved herself to be successful at every career she has attempted. As a doctor, she is already in a far better position to judge the efficacy of health reforms than most career politicians. Besides, given Scotland’s reputation as the Sick Man of Europe, we can hardly criticise De Block’s appointment?

When Nicola Sturgeon comes to choose her first cabinet secretary for health and wellbeing, she’ll probably have to do it by holding a carrot up in front of her brightest and best, and asking: “Can anybody tell me what this is?” If the silence goes on too long, she can say: “OK, can anybody tell me what sort of thing this is?” And the first person to say “Vegetable?” gets the job.

If De Block is really clever, she’ll publicly announce that she’s going to follow all her ministry’s pronouncements on healthier lifestyles to the letter, lose loads of weight, and use the publicity to sell books and exercise DVDs. Then not only will she have silenced her critics by conforming to all their exalted criteria for how the ideal minister for health should behave, she will have become something truly unparalleled: a politician who always does exactly what they say.