Milk, flags, and pint passports: Chris Morris presents... British media and political discourse

You've got to laugh. That or have a spiralling breakdown. "The headlines tonight: Portillo's teeth removed to boost Pound."

Yesterday in parliament, Sir Charles Walker — knighted by wheatfield enthusiast Theresa May for “political services” — made a long and rambling speech about milk. In a frankly transparent attempt to steal former MP and Miwk magnate, Mike Gapes’ record for the most unhinged milk-based intervention in a debate, Walker declaimed:

Madam deputy speaker, as sure as eggs are eggs, we will be back here in six months, at the end of September, being asked to renew this legislation again. It is inevitable — and anyone who thinks it is not inevitable is deluding themselves.

But tonight — or this afternoon — I’m not here to talk about eggs, madam deputy speaker, I want to talk about milk. Because in the remaining days of this lockdown, I am going to allow myself an act of defiance, my own protest that others may join me in.

I am going to protest about the price of milk, madam deputy speaker. Now, I’m not sure whether I think the price is too high or the price is too low, I shall come to that decision later. But for the next few days, I am going to walk around London with a pint of milk on my person, because that pint will represent my protest.

And there may be others who will choose too to walk around London with a pint of milk on their person as well. And perhaps, as we walk past each other in the street, our eyes might meet, we might even stop for a chat.

But I was thinking to myself — and I will continue to think to myself — what will their pint of milk represent? What will their protest be?

Perhaps they will be protesting the roaring back of a mental health demon brought on by lockdown. Perhaps they will protesting a renewed battle with anorexia, with depression, with anxiety, with addiction.

Perhaps with their pint of milk they will protesting the lack of agency in their life — not being able to make a meaningful decision. Maybe a loss of career, or job, or business.

Maybe they will be protesting this country’s slide into authoritarianism or perhaps they’ll be protesting the fact that we allow unelected officials to have lecterns at Number 10, to lecture us how to live our lives…

Walker was speaking in the debate on the renewal of emergency powers brought in during the Covid-19 crisis. He isn’t wrong to question the government’s use of those measures or to raise mental health issues. But Walker and the other members of the so-called Covid Recovery Group (CRG) have developed these concerns since the pandemic and largely only in relation to the pandemic.

Alongside his fellow CRG scenery chewer Desmond Swayne, Walker did not vote on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill — a further slip towards authoritarianism if ever there was one — but every other member of the CRG voted in favour of it. Their belief seems to be that the only permitted protests should be ones that they personally support.

In his previous statements on the Covid crisis, Walker has accused the government of trying to “abolish death” — another failed Conservative Party policy as we’re among the world leaders for Covid deaths — sneered that “not every death is a tragedy” and screamed at Boris Johnson to “get a grip” on his “bloody secretaries of state”. Given that context, it seems like the arrival of the ‘milk moment’ was an inevitability.

His speech continued:

Madam deputy speaker, there might even be people with their pint of milk quietly protesting that the route out of lockdown is too slow, or perhaps even too fast. You see the point is, madam deputy speaker, these people can project what they like, what concern they have, onto their pint of milk.

Now, madam deputy speaker, my protest — as I’ve said — will be about none of those things; it will simply be about the price of milk. And as I’ve said, for the next few days, I will have that pint on me, it will be of symbolic importance to me. At the end of the day, it will be warm, it will have supporated, and I can choose whether to drink it or pour it away. Because it will be robbed of its refreshing elegance by the time it’s been in my pocket for 12 hours.

And, if I pour it away that might cause people some concern, but it doesn’t matter because it’s my pint of milk and it’s my protest. And I’m not seeking people’s acclaim, endorsement, or support in my protest.

And do you know, madam deputy speaker, I heard and I listened to my honourable friend — this will pass, my protest will pass, the pandemic will pass, madam deputy speaker.

And in years to come, I will be sitting at my kitchen table, perhaps with my wife, and hopefully my childen — who will still want to see me — and I will break away from our excited conversation about the day because I will spot that pint of milk on the table and that pint shall remind me that the act of protest is a freedom, a freedom, madam deputy speaker, not a right, and unless your cherish freedoms everyday, unless you fight for freedoms every day, they end up being taken away from you…”

Of all the confused and milk-obsessed words in that speech, the most clear-eyed moment was when he recognised that his children might one day not want to associate with a man stinking of sour milk, ranting about how cows are a symbol of everything right with Britain.

The Guardian’s Rafael Behr, himself no stranger to becoming a meme, wrote half-seriously: “There is Alan Bennett-level poignancy to the Charles Walker milk speech. It fits into a great comic-melancholy tradition. Hints of Reggie Perrin, or Richard Briars in Ever Decreasing Circles.” The process of turning Walker into some kind of loveable national treasure has already begun.

If you found yourself next to a man in the pub who delivered a speech like Charles Walker’s, you’d move to a different table. But because he’s an MP of 16 years standing and a knight of the realm no less, we’re expected to take him seriously. Last night, he was given time on Channel 4 News to expand on his milky machinations and appeared clutching his pint:

Cathy Newman began the interview by assuring Walker that she did “feel his frustrations” and managed to keep a straight face as the MP admitted that “not everyone wants to march with milk”. The interview ended with him discussing his OCD and needlephobia, which has prevented him from having the vaccine yet. He reassured Newman that he would take the nasal vaccine when it’s available or stuff his face with brioche or Jaffa Cakes soaked in vaccine.

Of course, Walker’s OCD and phobias are serious and shouldn’t be laughed at, just as nobody with similar issues should be mocked. But his milk martyrdom will be conflated with those concerns and used to explain the speech. He’ll be all over the talk radio stations today treated as a serious critic of Covid restrictions rather than a man nursing a rapidly curdling pint of milk.

The response to Charlie Stayt’s joke about Robert Jenrick’s flag, along with the associated monstering of his co-host Naga Munchetty, has revealed once again just how triggered Tories are by even the merest hint of mockery. It even seems that Oliver Dowden’s announcement that public buildings will be required to fly the Union Flag was in some respects a response to that joke.

We are living in a political culture where the media can seriously spend days on issues like whether a scotch egg constitutes a substantial meal, how a particular politician eats a bacon sandwich, whether the Prime Minister’s dog is house trained, and the size and placement of flags. The years-long obsession with the “would you have a pint with this politician?” question stems from the same tedious and trivial impulse.

On Monday, James Wild — the MP for North West Norfolk and the most embarrassing thing to happen to the county since Alan Partridge drove to Dundee while gorging on Toblerone — quizzed BBC Director-General Tim Davie on how many Union Flags there were in the corporation’s last annual report:

Wild: There was a bit of discussion about flags last week and I think in your annual report last year — 268 pages — do you know how many Union Flags featured in any of the graphics?

Davie: Of all the briefings that I got for this meeting that was not one of them afraid.

Wild: Would you care to take a guess?

Davie: I have no idea.

Wild: Well, it was zero. Do you find that surprising?

Davie: No, I have to say I think that’s a strange metric. I have to say one of the things I looked at when I came into the building today was a Union Jack flying proudly on Broadcasting House, which it does on many, many days of the year… I don’t think there’s any problem with the BBC in terms of championing the UK and Britain abroad. If you do wander up Regent’s Street today, have a look at the Union Jack flying proudly on top of the BBC.

Wild: Always good to see the Union Jack flying, I just think in a report of 268 pages about the BBC — the British Broadcasting Corporation — my constituents would expect to see, probably, more than one flag appearing.

Davie: I just don’t see it as a metric.

Wild: Okay, well, you may not, but licence payers may do… in a report you published last week, the BBC Across The UK, again how many images of the Union Jack were in that?

Davie: I can hazard a guess based on where the question is going, but I haven’t looked.

Wild: Again, it was none, so maybe in the annual report this year, you can include some imagery about the Union Flag…

There are no Union Flags on Wild’s website. What a Britain-hating, commie bastard.

There was plenty of mockery of Wild’s witless line of questioning on Twitter, but the media mainly nodded, because he was saying what most of them think.

Just today in The Daily Telegraph, shop damaged Toby Jug and former UKIP MEP, Patrick O’Flynn, has filed a screed under the headline Why do the English metropolitan Left have such disdain for the Union Flag? The Telegraph’s greatest contribution to British trade continues to be the daily manufacture of strawmen in industrial quantities.

Over the next few days, Walker and his milk protest will be discussed with a surfeit of seriousness from Radio 4 to talkRadio and at all points in between. We have reached a stage when the British media’s own levels of ridiculousness are so high that it’s become utterly incapable of identifying and ignoring idiocy. The BBC is particularly beset with the problem having spent decades setting up debates between experts and fuckwits, which give them equal weighting.

Still, I look forward to Sir Keir Starmer asserting his status as a true patriot by strutting through Westminster in a Union Jack suit, guzzling milk and stuffing his mouth with scotch eggs, as the focus group demanded.

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