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Britain’s Brexit debate devolves into a bizarre standoff between boats on the Thames

Britain's debate about EU membership has turned into a farcical standoff between boats on the river Thames.


Gavia Baker-Whitelaw


Posted on Jun 15, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 2:52 pm CDT

On June 23, the British public will vote on whether they should leave the European Union. The debate over the so-called “Brexit” referendum has heated up over the past few weeks, culminating in a bizarre, watery standoff on the river Thames.

In a show of support for the Vote Leave campaign, a flotilla of fishing boats set off along the Thames on Wednesday morning. Not to be outdone, a group of pro-E.U. campaigners—led by aging rock star Bob Geldof—decided to organize an opposing flotilla.

The resulting standoff is currently the toast of Twitter, unfolding as campaigners shouted insults at each other from dinghies circling the water in central London. It’s hard to see how any of this could possibly persuade anyone on either side of the debate, because the whole thing is a farce.

Led by Nigel Farage, the leader of the right-wing U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), the original flotilla was planned as a show of support for the British fishing industry. It consists of 35 boats representing the Scottish “Fishing for Leave” campaign, aiming to travel along the Thames under Tower Bridge and past the Houses of Parliament.

In the words of the BBC, the two opposing flotillas engaged in “light-hearted skirmishes, including the exchange of hose fire.” When Bob Geldof began to play loud music on the sound system of his boat, some of the Leave fishing boats tried to drown out the noise by blaring their horns.

There’s a strong possibility that this is all a transparent excuse for a group of middle-aged men to have a water fight in front of the Houses of Parliament. 

Conveniently, a lot of the boats had at least one journalist onboard. And since this all went down in the middle of London, thousands of people were live-tweeting the debacle from the banks of the Thames as well—a truly historic moment in British politics.

One of the stars of of the day was David Coburn, a controversial member of the UKIP and one of Scotland’s six elected representatives at the European Parliament. His claims to fame include comparing a Scottish Muslim government minister to a convicted terrorist, and describing same-sex marriage campaigners as “Equality Nazis,” despite being openly gay himself.

This combination of political protest and Monty Python-esque slapstick was timed to coincide with Prime Minister David Cameron‘s final open Q&A with parliament before the E.U. referendum next week. Even during 2016’s tumultuous presidential election, it seems that America still hasn’t cornered the market on ludicrous political stunts.

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*First Published: Jun 15, 2016, 8:48 am CDT