17th July 2020
In July 2019, Boris Johnson thought he had all the answers.
Holding aloft a smoked kipper given to him by the editor of a British national newspaper, he declared his anger at ‘Brussels bureaucrats’. For decades, Johnson claimed, the EU had been forcing British fishermen to send their products through the post accompanied by a plastic ice pillow. If the financial and environmental cost of these pillows weren’t enough to convince even the most ardent ‘Remainer’ that they were wrong to oppose Brexit, than surely they would never change their minds.
But this wasn’t the first time fish had been brought into the Brexit debate. Three years earlier, as the UK was braced for the decisive referendum on EU membership, Conservative MP Michael Gove headed to Aberdeen, his Scottish hometown. For Gove, the most important political decision for Britain in living memory, was actually extremely personal. In a BBC feature, he recalled how his family’s fishing business had been run into the ground by EU quotas and demands, and that positive talk in British universities about Europe in the 1980’s was ‘airy fairy’, and ignored the experiences of ordinary people. These claims were later denied by Gove’s father, who told The Guardian that the reason he sold his business was due to a series of factors affecting the fishing industry in Scotland at the time.
But, this doesn’t make for the kind of story that populists like to tell, with the good, honest local people on one side being exploited by the corrupt and self-serving elites on the other. Firstly because, like most issues of such importance, it’s a lot more complicated. And secondly, acknowledging that Gove Senior really just decided to sell his business in order to work with someone else removes the element of antagonism that stirs up a sense of injustice to fight against, which populist politics is so well-known for.
But Brexit wasn’t the end of it. Perhaps taking inspiration from Michael Gove, Boris Johnson continued to bring fish back into the mainstream debate all the way up to the UK general election in December 2019. Just days before Britain went to the polls, Johnson’s Instagram account featured pictures of him at Grimsby Fish Market posing with the morning’s freshly caught sturgeon. It may seem a little fishy to outside observers, but Johnson’s use of fish to score political points is certainly not unique.
In fact, a bit of research into the use of social media by political leaders doing politics in a populist style seems to suggest that fish are an important feature of their promotional menu. Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has made use of the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to spend his time spotting what he claims to be ‘boats full of refugees’ sneaking their way past Britain’s border guards. But before that, if his Instagram account is to be believed, Farage preferred spending his time at sea catching sharks rather than asylum seekers. Alongside the pictures of him downing pints in the local pub, watching the cricket and tucking into a tray of good old fish n’ chips, what could be more British than also demonstrating an ability to rule the waves?
Michael Cole is an Early Stage Researcher based at The University of Tartu, Estonia. Follow him on Twitter here: @NotTheMikeCole
The FATIGUE project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under grant agreement No. 765224
The opinions presented are those of the author and do not represent the views of their institution