The World

More Than Just Milkshakes

Britain’s EU elections, which were never supposed to happen, have provided an opening to the far right—and its fiercest opponents.

Tommy Robinson and a strawberry milkshake.
British alt-right figure Tommy Robinson has been milkshaked twice in the past week.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by
unalozmen/Getty Images Plus and Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images.

In Britain, a new verb has been coined—“to milkshake.” It refers to what has happened not once but twice to Britain’s most successful alt-right figure, Tommy Robinson, as he has campaigned in North West England for the European Parliament over the past week. While videos of a dripping, furious Robinson went viral, police elsewhere on the campaign trail told McDonald’s to stop selling the creamy treats. The milkshake trend was not done yet, though: Britain’s most famous Brexiteer and friend of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, got splattered in Newcastle on Monday while anti-feminist YouTuber Carl Benjamin had a similar dunking in Salisbury.

Wherever you stand on the milkshake vs. Robinson debate, one thing is certain—his campaign for Thursday’s European Parliament elections should not be happening at all. Britain was supposed to leave the EU on March 29, in line with Prime Minister Theresa May’s pledge to deliver Brexit. But with the U.K. Parliament struggling to agree on what Brexit looked like, May was forced to beg for an extension. (It has been delayed, appropriately enough, to Halloween.) As a result, elections will be held on Thursday. And while it’s unclear how long the winners will actually sit in the European Parliament before Brexit finally happens, the vote will be a litmus test for where the nation stands, nearly three years from the day in 2016 when 52 percent of Brits voted to leave the EU.

Many moderate conservatives fear the big winners will be the far right. (Robinson is running as an independent but has the tacit support of Farage’s former party, UKIP.) These small but extreme parties are effectively blocked from the British Parliament under its winner-takes-all system. But these minnows can thrive in elections like the European Parliament’s based on proportional representation. Add to that popular frustration over the Conservative Party’s failure to deliver Brexit, and the far right certainly spies an opportunity in this one.

Robinson, the founder of the Islamophobic English Defence League, comes from Luton, a London satellite town, but he has schlepped up north to be photographed against a backdrop of housing estates in former industrial towns. His version of Brexit has very little to do with the intricacies of the customs union. Rather, it is likely to appeal to those who, in the immediate aftermath of the vote in 2016, told British Muslims “Get out—we voted Leave.”

But when it comes to candidates from small parties adept at stirring things up on social media, polls suggest it is not Robinson who will be elected. There is another candidate, running in the neighboring constituency of Yorkshire and the Humber, who has a much better chance. As a Somali-born Muslim refugee, he represents almost everything Robinson opposes.

Just like Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage, Magid Magid owes his fame in part to Donald Trump. No one expected the Green Party councilor to make international headlines when he was elected lord mayor of Sheffield at age 28 in 2018. But when Trump visited the U.K. a month later, he tweeted: “I Magid Magid, Lord Mayor & first citizen of this city hereby declare that not only is Donald J Trump a WASTEMAN, but he is also henceforth banned from the great city of Sheffield!”

The tweet went viral, and so did Magid. His 56,000 followers on Twitter watched over the next year to see what his next T-shirt slogan would be (“Immigrants Make Britain Great”), when he’d hold another party at the town hall (often), and whether he’d survive the London Marathon without any training (just about).

If the far right is an expression of one type of marginalized voter, Magid connects with another—the young, who voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU in 2016. Faced with high rents, stagnant wages, and looming student debt, they rallied behind the center-left Labour Party in the 2017 general election when Brexit was pushed onto the backburner. In these European elections, though, voters seem to have fired up the gas again. In Yorkshire and the Humber, Labour has two European Parliament seats, but a recent YouGov/Datapraxis poll suggests that will be slashed to one, while the Greens will gain a seat.

The European elections are “100 percent” about Brexit, Magid tells me down a crackly phone line en route to his latest campaign speech. “People are using it as a proxy referendum.” While Labour has fudged its position, the Greens are demanding a second vote on whether the U.K. should leave the EU. Magid’s campaign video goes further, introducing him as a “true Yorkshire boy” and a “black Muslim refugee” before warning: “There is a real battle at this very moment for the soul of Britain.”

Although Magid is a Green politician, he talks as much about challenging poverty and xenophobia as the environment. His bluntness, delivered in a soft Sheff accent, can be controversial. Once, during his mayoralty, he issued a poster instructing passersby: “Don’t be a prick.” His critics complained he was bringing the city into disrepute. “We have been socially conditioned for so many years to expect what a politician looks like and acts like,” he says. “When you challenge that, you are going to make people uncomfortable. But you know what? You bring a lot of people with you.”

Whoever wins on Thursday, European elections are unlikely to bring much certainty to Britain—except that the milkshake is an effective form of protest. Rather, polls suggest they will show the population still divided. Most Leave voters seem likely to opt for the Brexit Party, Farage’s new populist vehicle. The pro-EU Lib Dems will join the Greens in scooping up Remain voters. The traditional umbrella parties, Labour and the Conservatives, will be humiliated.

None of this adds up to resolving Brexit anytime soon. Magid seems likely to be packing up in Sheffield for a new job in Brussels, but he has no idea how long for. “It could literally be five weeks, five months, or five years.”