The Rabble Rouser

Iain Duncan Smith is a man who knows when his time has come. When the village is beset by wolves and monsters; when virgins are ravished by foreigners and don’t seem to mind; when moral decay emanates from a nearby spooky castle inhabited by experts, Iain is there to lead the mob. And what the mob need*, he knows instinctively, is that last push that will take away fear and humanity and turn them into monsters themselves, so that they can torch the place and go back to a life of proper British agricultural misery without EU workers, inward investment or trips abroad. They need a speech.

The mob, of course, also know this. They know, and they’ve got all their pantomime fury ready to go – but they also know Iain, and they know in their heart of hearts that he’s not the man for the job. Iain always gives it everything he’s got, but whatever it is that he has got just isn’t incendiary. Iain is not a blazing pillar of fire. He is a two-bar electric with a little rack where you warm your slippers. But as TE Lawrence might have said, the two-bar electric fires of the day are dangerous things, for they may act their dream to make it real, although let’s be honest going by the averages it’s likely they won’t.

And so to the present moment, in which the Great Orator rose to his feet and delivered himself of the following gem:

“When she gets into negotiations [with the EU], would she remind them that cake exists to be eaten, and cherries exist to be picked!”

It was definitely classic Iain, and fortunately the mob was ready. They didn’t wait to parse it, they laughed and applauded and it has been reported in the Brexit-y press as an absolute zinger. A few of the more thoughtful souls in the audience have the baffled look of people who know they’re supposed to feel really rampantly arsonish right about now and don’t, but that’s the extent of Parliament’s examination of the issue — a level of careful critique that is on a par with its scrutiny of the Brexit process in general.

So let us take a brief digression into Iain’s bon mot, and see where it leads.

We know, of course, that he’s driving at the Brexiter mantra about it being desirable to have one’s cake and eat it, which has always been a bit wobbly because the whole point of the original expression is that you can’t. It’s the most Canutean rallying cry of Iain’s career, and he’s the chap who advised us — only slightly raising his voice — not to underestimate the determination of a quiet man. Which we didn’t, but nor did we vote for him. Coupled with the idea of cherry-picking, an expression whose meaning is that someone has ignored the facts and is proceeding on the basis of fantasy, you’d have trouble finding a more self-defeating metaphorical yawp if you scoured the globe.

But that’s just the beginning.

Taking the propositions literally, they are lacking. Cake is a human construction and we are, of course, free to define its purpose. It definitely does exist to be eaten, but to say that is the entire function of cake in our society is to reduce a rich symbol of British culture to the level of mere nutrition. Cake exists to be tasted. It exists to be marvelled at. It exists to celebrate weddings and mark birthdays and even to salve funerals. It has in recent years formed an integral part of our national discourse. Sometimes, cake even points up our weaknesses as a culture. Iain, in speaking about the EU and Brexit, has vastly underestimated the complexity and variety of roles filled by cake in our society.

Um. Moving on.

Regarding cherries, Iain’s just tragically off the mark in terms of the life cycle of the tree. The cherries are there to get eaten, yes, but they’re also there to get carried away in the digestive tract of an animal so that the stone can be excreted at a distance from the parent plant. The eating is frankly just the cherry’s equivalent of buying a plane ticket to another part of the forest. The stone is then able to put down roots wherever it lands and start a new tree. Iain’s instinct to centre on the short-term joy of cherry juice rolling erotically around in his mouth has blinded him to an awkward reality: the whole point of the cherry is not the sweetness of the eating experience, it’s freedom of movement.

The fact that none of this was allowed to make an impact on the reaction of the House is the reality of British politics in the Brexit era. Nothing may mean anything except that we must leave the EU, and no speech, however upside down or inside out, is anything but a triumph.

(*Yes, I increasingly treat collective nouns as plurals. Don’t @ me.)