A couple of centuries ago, at the dawn of the democratic age, the rabble that wanted more of a say in public life were looked upon as pigs: the “swinish multitude,” in Edmund Burke’s famous phrase. Today, they’re looked upon as pig meat, or “gammon,” the insult du jour of the online British left targeting men who are drawn to “right-wing or nationalist politics” and who bear “more than a passing resemblance to a plate of boiled meat,” as the Independent puts it. These “flushed, middle-aged Brexiteers” look like cuts of a “hearty pork steak,” and they’re ruining the political life of the nation with all their “ranting about Brexit and immigrants.” These gammon-cheeked scourges of electoral politics, hailing mostly from the working class or lower middle class, are held responsible for all the supposed political ills of our time.
An earlier generation of democrats embraced the swinish metaphor. Indeed, one of the great democratic journals of the 1790s was called Pig’s Meat—a reply, week in, week out, to the anti-democratic prejudices of the establishment and in particular to Burke’s hand-wringing, to which the radical pamphleteers responded with satirically piggish indignation. We demand “the Rights of Swine,” declared Pig’s Meat in 1794.
Burke introduced the trope of the pig into political discussion in 1790 in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he fretted over what would follow if the nobility and the clergy were pushed aside by France’s politicized hordes. “Learning will be cast into the mire and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude,” he warned. There it was. The nightmarish vision of the swine, of the pig-like, unlearned crowd, overpowering what Burke described as “the spirit of [the] gentleman.” Radicals in England, stirred rather than horrified by what was happening in France, responded with great ferocity to Burke’s piggy jibe.