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War or no war, there’s something seriously silly about fish

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As a citizen of this country, I rejoiced at the Monday night news that Britain and France may yet avoid a full-scale trade dispute over a few kilos of Jersey cuttlefish. And yet the possibility that this fish fight might be settled sensibly is depriving us of a few weeks of top-notch diplomatic comedy. However serious the reality, there is no way to structure a sentence containing the phrase “Fish War” without it being funny.

One has only to imagine the News at Ten. “Hostilities have intensified in the Fish War as French trawlers prevented the unloading of British whelks at Le Havre.”

(It should be stressed that the nature of my deadlines means this was written a few days before publication. By the time you read this, British warships may be pounding French ports with a fusillade of flounder and a torrent of turbot. The author cannot therefore be held responsible for any battering in the days since he handed in his copy.)

This row offers the irresistible combination of something as innately silly as fish with something as serious as war, even though at this stage the war is being fought on the battlefields of social media. “We shall fight them in the retweets and on our Facebook page; we shall fight them in the podcasts and on the Instagram feeds. We shall never surrender.” France has warned that if the dispute is not settled soon, it will retaliate by allowing its Europe minister, Clément Beaune, to release his own version of “The Wellerman” on TikTok, an escalation that no one wants to see.

France says threats and force are the only language the British understand. This, of course, is untrue. English is the only language the British understand.

Even those of us who remember the Cod War with Iceland (the country, not the store) have to google it just to be sure it wasn’t a Monty Python sketch. Fish is perhaps the most reductive word in the English language. There is no government title with less grandeur than minister for fish. Fish phrases are overwhelmingly negative. Fish exist to be out of water, shot in a barrel or rotting from the head down.

Almost all piscatorial terms, including piscatorial, are inherently amusing. Herring is always funny. Haddock, halibut and red mullet are guaranteed grins, and pollock was patently invented to be used by comedians when all other fish names are failing to get a laugh.

The whole saga is rather like one of those Neighbours from Hell TV shows, where the entire row starts over something one of their dogs once did to the other’s front drive. “The French say the British started the whole thing by leaving the neighbourhood watch committee, while the Brits say they have CCTV images of the French trying to steal their clearing houses.” It is perfectly scripted. On one side of the fence, the yobbish indifference of the British prime minister; on the other, the wounded hauteur of the French president. It’s essentially The Odd Couple but with scallops.

It ought not to need saying that any dispute that generates hilarity at its mere mention is perhaps one not worth having. You have to wonder how Neville Chamberlain would have announced the state of hostilities. “I am speaking to you from the fish-gutting room of No 10 Downing Street. At 9am this morning, the most junior minister it was possible to find delivered an ultimatum to the French government, stating that unless we heard from them by 11am that they had stopped being irritated by our failure to hand over more fishing licences, a state of serious exasperation would exist between our two countries.

“It is evil things we shall be fighting against. Blockades, Gallic shrugs and shellfishness. We must not be seen to compromise, though we hold open the possibility of compromise that cannot be seen.”

There are, it must be said, communities in both countries where fish is a serious business. Livelihoods are at stake. Furthermore, trade disputes have been behind a number of historic conflicts, military and diplomatic. Many will have heard of the Opium Wars with China in the 1840s and 50s, though less is now heard of the Paracetamol Conflict and the brutal Dettol Wipes Skirmish.

Brexiters, Remainers, British and French will take different views on where right and wrong lie. But a matter that could be settled in an afternoon is reducing two supposed allies to nursery tantrums. Of course bigger issues, primarily the need for each side to prove that Brexit is either a catastrophe or a triumph, lie behind this. But while we are doubtless grateful for this interlude of political comic relief, it ought to be clear that, amid serious global challenges, two nations supposedly on the same side have bigger you-know to fry.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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