There are moments in our island history when parliament fully assumes its role as the nation’s debating chamber, where members wrestle with the great problems of the day, consciences stirred as they wonder how best to honour their oaths of office.
One thinks of Leo Amery, urging Arthur Greenwood to “speak for England”, or Robin Cook denouncing the Iraq War from the backbenches. And one thinks of Sir Charles Walker, talking about milk.
The debate on Thursday was not, as such, about milk. Doubtless there have been many great milk-focused debates in the House of Commons over the centuries, but this wasn’t – until Sir Charles stood up – one of them.
It was about renewing lockdown rules. Keen-eyed readers will have noticed that the three weeks of restrictions originally announced in March last year have run-on a touch. Some MPs wonder why, if we’re on the irreversible path to freedom that ministers insist we are, with orgies in every pub by the summer, the laws need to be renewed until the autumn. They suspect, not entirely unreasonably, that freedoms once given up are hard to get back.
The debate will be remembered, though, for Sir Charles Walker talking about milk.
The past year has been difficult for Sir Charles. He objects intensely to the government exercising its current powers over our lives, and also to the fact that so few people seem to be upset about this. Our national insouciance about having our ancient liberties taken from us seems to particularly frustrate him. In every debate about lockdown, he has offered passionate denunciations of the government’s approach, though generally without offering much in the way of an alternative plan.
But no more. Sir Charles has a plan now, and it’s a plan for milk.
He didn’t begin by talking about milk. That would have been ridiculous. No, he began by talking about eggs.
“As sure as eggs are eggs we will be back here in six months,” he opened, “being asked to renew this legislation again. It is inevitable.” Whether this is because he thinks the vaccine will fail, or simply because he thinks Boris Johnson wants to keep everyone locked-up until the end of time, he didn’t say.
But Sir Charles wasn’t there to talk about eggs. “I’m not here to talk about eggs,” he said. Of course not, we thought. It’s a debate about lockdown rules.
“I want to talk about milk,” he went on. And we thought: I’m terribly sorry, I lost you there for a second and I thought you said you wanted to talk about milk.
“In the remaining days of this lockdown,” he said, “I am going to allow myself an act of defiance, my own protest that others may join me in.” This is more like it, we thought, he’s going to superglue himself to the Speaker’s mace.
“I am going to protest about the price of milk,” he said. Go back a second, we thought, it really sounded like you were talking about milk there.
“Now I’m not sure whether I think the price is too high, or the price is too low, I will come to that decision later,” he said. Is this a metaphor, we thought. Is it something to do with the Corn Laws?
“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,” he said. Wait what, we thought. What?
“There may be others who will choose to walk around London with a pint of milk on their person as well,” he said. Yes, we thought. People who have nipped to the shops for a pint of milk, for instance.
“Perhaps as we walk past each other in the street our eyes might meet,” he said. We highly doubt it, we thought. We very highly doubt it. You don’t live long in central London by making eye contact with middle-aged men waving pints of milk at you. “We might even stop for a chat,” he said, and we thought not unless you get bloody good at cornering us, milk boy.
Was there a point to this? It’s hard to say
“What will their pint of milk represent?” he asked. Tea, we thought. It will represent tea. Or coffee, what with us all being metropolitan liberals. “Perhaps they will be protesting the roaring back of a mental health demon brought on by lockdown, perhaps they will be protesting a renewed battle with anorexia, with depression, with anxiety, with addiction, perhaps with their pint of milk they will be protesting the lack of agency in their life.” Perhaps they will just want some cornflakes? “These people can project what they like, what concern they have, onto their pint of milk.”
Was the milk for throwing at people? Does the milk keep the virus away? “It will be of symbolic importance to me.” Oh.
“At the end of the day, it will be warm, it will be suppurated,” Sir Charles continued, in a rebuke to those wondering whether someone had replaced “flag” with “milk” throughout his speech without him noticing. “And I can choose whether to drink it” – don’t drink it, Sir Charles, that’s disgusting – “if I pour it away, that might cause people some concern but it doesn’t matter, because it’s my pint of milk.” You’re damn right it is.
Was there a point to this? It’s hard to say. Sir Charles pictured himself on some future day sitting at the breakfast table with his family.
“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.” If you say so, Sir Charles, if you say so. “Unless you fight for freedoms, every day, they end up being taken away from you.”
Milk that has been in your pocket all day, however, you get to keep.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe