Milkshake. After almost three years of highbrow hand-wringing of all flavours, some of them luridly artificial, others difficult to swallow, that’s what has been fuelling the debate over Brexit in the United Kingdom.
There are 332 million mentions of the dreaded B-word online (at last count) and there have been three failed attempts to drag a bill kickstarting the damn thing through the mother of all parliaments. Turn on the news in the UK and before you can say Brexit, someone else will. Search out all the non-Brexit stories in the papers and you will spend more time turning pages than reading.
Brexit, says Bernard-Henri Lévy, the mad French philosopher’s own mad French philosopher, is “Great Britain wanting to become little England. It’s a strange, unexplainable suicide of a great country.”
But Brexit has started to melt. The dense, grey, suicidal sludge it was in the consciousness turned into a pastel-coloured mess of liquified ice cream poured over the squawking head of a person in an expensive suit.
Far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – Tommy Robinson is not his real name – had milkshake thrown at him in public twice in as many days. It happened four times to Carl Benjamin of the UK Independence Party (Ukip). And the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage has also taken a trip down milky lane. So far, strawberry has been the molten missile of choice.
“Oh, not again,” an onlooker blurted when Farage’s midriff was splattered.
“Complete failure. Should have spotted that [coming] a mile away,” he spluttered at his bodyguards amid loud laughter from spectators.
Candidates on the right
The practice has a name, “lactose against intolerance”, and it grabbed more and more headlines in the run-up to the European Union (EU) parliamentary elections on Thursday 23 May.
Denied the opportunity to mend the error of the 2016 referendum vote in favour of leaving the EU, remain-minded Brits had the chance to take aim at the objects of their futile anger in a campaign that was all about Brexit – even if it wasn’t.
Yaxley-Lennon is a common thug who has moonlighted as the boss of the English Defence League and become the ugly face of other neo-fascist organisations. Benjamin thinks it’s a joke to say he “wouldn’t even rape” Labour member of Parliament Jess Phillips. The anti-immigrant Farage, who is of French descent, was Ukip’s leader and now vents professionally as head of the Brexit Party.
All are on the right of a UK political establishment that seems determined to lurch further in that direction. All are vociferously in favour of the country leaving the EU. And all were nonetheless, along with the usual suspects, running as EU parliamentary candidates.
Member disparity, alliances and hay-making
Despite the paradox, it’s not difficult to see why. The Conservatives rely on a flimsy alliance with the ultra-conservative Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to control just enough seats to stay in government, much less get anything done, and certainly not something as weighty as severing the increasingly complex bonds that began forming when the UK joined the EU in 1973.
Labour refuse to say unequivocally whether or not they back a second Brexit referendum because a significant chunk of their support in England’s north voted to leave in 2016. This puts the party at odds with much of its younger, metropolitan membership, who are demanding a second referendum.
The major parties have clung to their crumbling positions even though the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems), who have left no doubt about their wish to stay in the EU, made hay while the sun shone in the local elections in England and Northern Ireland on 2 May.
The Tories lost 1 333 council seats, Labour 82 and Ukip 145. The Lib Dems gained 704 seats and the Greens, who also oppose Brexit, gained 194.
One would have thought the results of these local elections would open the heavyweights’ eyes to the screaming suggestion that voters had changed their minds on Brexit. But, quite the opposite. “These results tell us the public want us to get on and deliver Brexit” was the refrain, delivered by rote across Tory and Labour lines.
So, UK citizens were left to make a tough choice in an election that shouldn’t have involved them because they should have already left the EU.
Major muddlers and milkshakes
There were the bigger players, who have wasted the years they’ve had to enact the result of a referendum that should never have been called, one that has paralysed mainstream politics. Instead, they’ve preached to their converted, placated their radicals and scored points against each other by talking a lot about Brexit without ever saying if they think it should happen.
Voters could also have backed one of a slew of ineffectual smaller groups. Or the Brexit Party, which didn’t exist until 20 January and whose sole purpose is to leave the Parliament it was bidding to join. And, of course, to undermine the hell out of that Parliament while they’re there.
How did they all do in the end? Farage, who has been telling the EU what an awful organisation it is since he was first elected to Brussels in 1999, cracked the nod with 31.6% of the voting public. This was not least because his message, crude though it is, is clear from what Lévy describes as his “screams of self-hatred”. Farage’s Brexit Party and Ukip – the arch-leavers – together earned 39.4%.
The avowedly remain parties – the Lib Dems, the Greens, Change UK and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists – won a combined 40.4% of the votes.
The major muddlers in the Brexit muddle, Labour and the Tories, limped to 14.1% and 9.1% respectively. Hence the milkshake aimed at the Brexiteers who, the milkshakers say, got them into this mess and are advocating for a dangerously nationalist society.
The weekend before the election, the police in Edinburgh asked fast-food chain McDonald’s not to sell the stuff while Farage was in town. They complied. Not so rival Burger King, which tweeted: “Dear people of Scotland. We’re selling milkshakes all weekend. Have fun.”
The soggy saga hit that cathedral to seriousness, BBC Radio 4, when Anna Soubry – until 20 February a Tory member of Parliament, now part of Change UK – refused to see the lighter side.
“However obnoxious some of these people are, throwing stuff at them just gives them more publicity and they thrive on that,” Soubry said. “More than that, it represents a coarsening of political discourse in our country which is not acceptable. It’s a terrible waste of food, which milk is.”
The Guardian columnist Zoe Williams took a different view: “Essentially what the Brexit Party, and before them Ukip, have done is to introduce this top note of violence into the public sphere – not dairy products, real violence; Nigel Farage talks about rifles in the street.
“There is a kind of ludic element to this, which is really different to the kind of violence the far right is marshalling when they talk about how much we should fear them.”
Soubry called Williams’ opinion “twaddle”. Williams labelled Soubry “pompous”. Back came Soubry with, “Don’t give me this liberal nonsense.”
They were, of course, crying over spilt milkshake.