It was a depressing, foregone conclusion that MPs would vote to renew the excessive powers granted to government under the Coronavirus Act 2020. Another dull afternoon in the Commons was in prospect, when suddenly the debate took a turn for the bizarre. An MP got up on his hind legs to give one of the strangest speeches this century, and possibly in the history of parliament —a speech that is destined to become iconic as a magnificent example of British eccentricity and world-beating surrealism.
Meet Sir Charles Walker
Sir Charles Walker, MP for Broxbourne, Chair of the Administration Committee, Deputy Chair of the powerful 1922 Committee (that makes or breaks Tory prime ministers), member of the Liaison Committee (that questions the prime minister twice a year), and a prominent lockdown sceptic, announced in parliament that he would be making a very special protest of his own.
“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,” he began. “It is inevitable, and anyone who thinks it is not is deluding themselves. But this afternoon I am not here to talk about eggs; I want to talk about milk.”
Anyone could be forgiven for losing the will to live at this point. It’s bad enough that we’ve got another six months of authoritarian Tory mis-rule. To think that there could be yet another six months of this beyond that is unbearable. While some chomp at the bit because of the restrictions placed upon us for public health reasons, what makes my blood boil is the suspension of normal procurement procedures.
This has resulted in the Treasury being pillaged to reward Tory chums and donors with multi-million-pound public contracts they are ill-qualified to fulfil. It wouldn’t be so bad if they had delivered per contract, even if the UK taxpayer has been stuffed with above-market prices. As it happens, some had a go and delivered flawed product that can’t be used, others got hold of out-dated product and put new “use by” stickers over the original use-by dates, while the worst didn’t deliver at all. Billions of pounds wasted. When we were experiencing food shortages, so much storage space was being hogged by these millions and millions of pieces of unusable product that it became a problem. I could think of dozens of ways to put that money to better use, starting with a decent pay-rise for our frontline workers…
Hey-ho. That’s my beef, not Walker’s. He, like the other Tory MPs, have never uttered a word about their government’s corruption, which in scale is even more epic than the expenses scandal that rocked parliament in 2009. No. Mr Walker was more exercised about the price of milk. Or maybe not.
“In the remaining days of this lockdown, I am going to allow myself an act of defiance—my own protest, which others may join me in. I am going to protest about the price of milk. I am not sure whether I think the price is too high or 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.”
Had he woken up in 2015 this morning, and was he now belatedly supporting the farmers’ protest over the declining price of milk? Was this a secret call to all rebels everywhere to go out and buy a pint of milk and descend on London for purposes unknown? Perhaps it was the latest frontier in flag-shagging? Except Walker hadn’t specified British milk. Or was it just that he had a bet on with a mate at the Milk Marketing Board that he could use his platform in parliament to push their product? Oops. No. That was dissolved in 2002…
With speech and gestures becoming increasingly passionate or theatrical, depending on your viewpoint, Walker went on to explain that the pint of milk was a symbol that a protestor could project anything they liked onto. He then listed some valid concerns:
“Perhaps they will be protesting the rolling back of a mental health team, 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—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…”
Wait, what? A Tory MP complaining about our government’s slide into authoritarianism? Is there a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, a glimmer of hope that Tory MPs will suddenly rise up and overthrow this very un-British regime? I’m not sure there is. Walker seems to be one of those Tory MPs who thinks stripping 66 million Brits of their freedom of movement rights and thereby forever closing off opportunities to them is good, but placing temporary restrictions on them while a deadly virus is raging is bad.
His speech ended on a wistful note, imagining a time in the future when he’d be sitting in the kitchen with his wife and their children, if they’re still talking to him by then… yes, he was certain they would be. His eyes would alight on a bottle of milk and fond memories of his pint-sized protest would come flooding back:
“…and that pint shall remind me that the act of protest is a freedom—a freedom, not a right, and unless you cherish freedoms every day, unless you fight for freedoms every day, they end up being taken away from you.”
Protest is a right as well as a freedom
Hmm. Clearly Walker is unaware that protest is a right as well as a freedom. It is guaranteed by articles 9 to 11 of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. Not only is the UK a signatory to it, but British lawyers drafted it in the first place. Of course, he could have been deliberately ignoring it. The Tories are dead keen on leaving it, as they are on leaving anything and everything that’s got the word ‘European’ in the title, whether it’s to do with the EU or not.
True to his word, Walker later appeared on Channel 4 News brandishing a pint of milk.
“You don’t need to have an excuse to have a protest in a free country,” Walker told Cathy Newman, the Channel 4 presenter who interviewed him.
“Milk martyrs are in short supply,” she teased him, as she pointed out that 484 MPs voted with the government, giving them a majority of 408.
“Restricting people’s freedoms is not the way to go about it,” Walker insisted.
What of our little corner of the World? How did the South-West’s MPs vote? I’m pleased to report that a fair few of them voted against the extension of the Coronavirus Act 2020 —but whether they were swayed into doing so by Walker’s milk protest would be mere conjecture on my part.
Ben Bradshaw (Exeter, Labour)
Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Con)
Richard Drax (South Dorset, Con)
Marcus Fysh (Yeovil, Con)
Anne-Marie Morris (Newton Abbot, Con)
Sir Robert Syms (Poole, Con)
David Warburton (Somerton & Frome, Con)
Roughly ten percent of Tory MPs rebelled, all first elected before 2019, versus almost twenty per cent of those in the South West. Similarly for Labour, a little over ten per cent rebelled, but as there are only two Labour MPs in the region and one of them is on Labour’s front bench, further comparisons are meaningless.
What does this mean for the PCSC Bill?
Does the size of this rebellion mean there is hope that the offensive and morally repugnant elements of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, particularly those relating to peaceful protest, will be expunged? Veteran Labour MP Graham Stringer challenged Walker on this point, accusing him of hypocrisy, banging on about his milk protest when he’d voted in favour of the PCSC Bill…
Except he hadn’t, and Walker was quick to clear his name and set the record straight:
“You will be well aware that I was not able to vote in last week’s Divisions, because I am chairing the relevant Bill in Committee…”
That opens up another front for those of us who wish to protest for the right to peaceful protest, with or without a pint of milk about our person. As well as writing to our local newspapers and our constituency MP, we should write to Sir Charles Walker as well. The rules state that you must only write to your constituency MP, but as Walker is the chair of one committee, the deputy chair of another and a member of so many more, we can write to him in one of those capacities. Remember the closing words of Walker’s speech:
“…unless you cherish freedoms every day, unless you fight for freedoms every day, they end up being taken away from you.”