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Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.

Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.

Elizabeth Renzetti

Tempest in a yeast pot: Britain has stickier problems than Marmite Add to ...

The dial of history swings on the tiniest pivot, sometimes. The nail that Richard III’s horse lost. The bullet that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand. A small pot of yeast sludge that tastes delicious on toast.

Four months after the end of a Brexit campaign filled with enough hot air to inflate a million bouncy castles and more misleading numbers than a billionaire’s tax return, it has all come down to this: A fight over the much-loved, much-loathed breakfast spread Marmite. Yes, Britain is in the grip of the worst condiment crisis since the great Branston Pickle shortage of ’04 sent aging rock stars and sarnie fans into a deep depression. And it’s all because of Brexit.

The pound has taken a dive ever since 52 per cent of British voters chose to leave the European Union in a June referendum. In four months, it has lost 17 per cent of its value against the Euro. As a result, Unilever, the Dutch/British company that owns Marmite, sought a 10-per-cent increase in the prices it was charging British supermarkets for its products. The grocery giant Tesco balked, and a country found itself on the brink of a crisis to rival Suez, with the prospect of dry toast stretching from Land’s End to John O’ Groats. “Share your photos of empty shelves with us,” the Guardian newspaper pleaded. By week’s end, before Britons had to make the soul-shredding move to cream cheese, Unilever and Tesco had reached an agreement, and Marmite was liberated again.

Reading media reports, you’d think this tempest in a yeast pot was the worst fallout from Brexit – worse than the rise in hate crimes, the plunge in the value of their currency, the political chaos, the nasty rhetoric toward immigrants, and the prospect of losing Scotland. Remainers might say, “I told you so,” but who could rejoice in such a bitter Pyrrhic victory?

Next week, a bill for a second Scottish independence referendum will be published on the orders of Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon. She had warned this would happen if the Leave side won, and now she has made good on a promise to the 62 per cent of Scottish voters who wanted to remain in the EU.

This was not an unforeseen consequence of a Leave vote. Neither was a rise in anti-immigrant feeling, and that too has come to pass. (One of the most notorious ads of the Brexit campaign showed an endless line of dejected-looking migrants next to the words, “Breaking Point.”) The British Home Office released statistics this week showing a 41 per cent increase in hate crimes between June and July over the same period last year. Most of the 5,468 crimes were based on ethnicity or religion, and the level of assaults over summer “remained at a higher level than prior to the EU referendum.”

Those are the statistics, and British newspapers are filled with the stories that put faces on those numbers: The pregnant Muslim woman who lost her baby after being beaten in Milton Keynes, or the Polish family in Plymouth who received a ransom-type letter saying, “Go back to your country next be your family” after their garage was burned down.

Even British Prime Minister Theresa May, who seems quite reasonable in many ways, is throwing raw meat to a particular segment of the population. A draconian immigration-policy framework set out by Home Secretary Amber Rudd at last week’s Tory convention had business leaders and even the party’s own supporters shaking their heads (and one radio announcer comparing it to Mein Kampf.) The framework included proposals to jail landlords who rent to illegal immigrants; a curb on foreign students; and most troubling, a recommendation that British firms be required to list their foreign workers, with the companies hiring the most being made available for a public spanking, presumably.

This policy was intended to “prevent migrants taking jobs British people can do,” Ms. Rudd said. It created such an uproar that the government was forced to backpedal at a speed usually reserved for running away from grizzly bears. There would be no naming and shaming of companies, it said. But the underlying message about job-stealing come-from-aways was clear when Ms. Rudd responded to a BBC question about whether the policy was racist: “People want to talk about immigration, and if we do talk about immigration, don’t call me racist.”

The desire to scapegoat and abuse newcomers – the vast majority of whom are in the UK legally – is not going to go away any time soon. It’s a virus that has infected the whole world. (Consider that Donald Trump told a rally in Florida this week, “We’re going to have a little Brexit coming up in November.”)

Ms. May is now in the incredibly tricky position of trying to negotiate the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU. It’s a process that will cost upwards of 20-billion pounds, according to a recent analysis by The Financial Times, and will not make very many people happy. A High Court challenge is under way about whether Ms. May will have to pass a law before beginning the negotiations, or whether the government already has that authority, as it believes.

Marmite is the least of their problems. It’s a good thing they now have a steady supply to see them through this long, dark winter. They’re going to need it, along with lots of tea, and possibly something much stronger.

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Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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