As horror movie ideas go, failure to secede from a political and economic bloc on Halloween seems like an implausible incident for inciting societal meltdown and violence on the streets. However, the UK Government suggests that this is a likely outcome if the country does not leave the EU on October 31st.
Recently, at a book launch, Dominic Cummings, widely regarded as the strategic power behind Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s throne, was asked to comment on MPs’ fears for their personal safety. These fears come from threats sent by people angry at the British Parliament’s failure to agree a route out of the European Union, and the passing of recent legislation that may force the Government to request an extension to the current deadline of 31st October.
The question came after MPs accused Boris Johnson of inflaming public anger towards them with his intemperate use of language. In particular, he described the legislation that makes ‘no deal’ Brexit subject to a parliamentary vote as ‘the Surrender Bill’, with its connotations of capitulation, cowardice and collaboration.
‘What do you expect to happen?’ replied Cummings.
His glib answer implies that this outcome was so obvious that MPs’ complaints are naïve or dishonest. The Johnsonsite contention is that the electorate were asked for their opinion, assured that it would be implemented and have watched Parliament spend three and a half years failing to agree how it should be done so it’s understandable that people may turn to violence. This overlooks that the deadlock has come about because Johnson himself pushed an idea of Brexit utterly divorced from reality, such as reclaiming vastly more money than we actually contribute to the EU and promising that change would be quick, easy and on our terms.
The alleged inevitability of political violence if Britain doesn’t leave the EU on the 31st October has been amplified by other members of the Government. Unnamed senior cabinet ministers have warned in the press that failure to deliver Brexit by that date will result in civil unrest on a scale similar to the LA Riots. Nigel Farage says he’ll “pick up a rifle” and recently spoke of “taking the knife” to civil servants. When challenged, he claimed to mean only in the sense of budget cuts. MPs have reported that Johnson’s words are quoted when by the authors of death threats they receive. He calls that “humbug”. No sympathy, no remorse, no horror at who and what he inspires.
The simplicity of Cummings’ cause-and-effect ignores the many reasons that Brexit is yet to happen. Nonetheless, even if his diagnosis were correct, the threat of violence should never be allowed to affect the decisions of elected politicians. Before my election as a Member of the European Parliament I worked for 16 years as a criminal trial lawyer. Only once did a defendant threaten me and there was no question of it influencing my actions. The same principle should apply in politics. MPs have to do what they think is best for their constituents. The threat of reprisals should not change that.
The narrative of inevitable unrest needs to challenged. It is both disingenuous and dangerous. It is true that British politics is deeply divided. On Thursday, John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, described the atmosphere in the chamber the day before as ‘worse than any I’ve known in my 22 years in the house.’ After bitter exchanges between the Prime Minister and opposition politicians, the office of one Labour MP, Jess Phillips, was attacked by a man chanting ‘fascist’.
But it is not too late to diffuse the situation, to appeal to the “better angels of our nature” as President Lincoln, whose statue stands proud in our Parliament Square, would say. However, the Prime Minister is unwilling to play his part, and instead continues to stoke tensions, division and recrimination through his rhetoric. On the morning of the attack on her office, Jess Phillips described him as making a conscious decision to ‘to divide rather than lead’, a strategy ‘designed by somebody to harm and cause hatred in our country’. He has denied that there is anything malign about his language and was cheered by activists at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on Sunday. On the same day, however, Dominic Grieve, a former Conservative Attorney General, drew a direct link between the Prime Minister’s rhetoric and the recent death threats he has received. Defending this language on Marr (a leading BBC political chat show) Johnson said “surrender” is “tried and tested”, which many of us assume means “focus-group tested.”
As with Trump’s targeting of Congresswomen of colour, it seems that there is very little that the Government won’t threaten to achieve its aims, targeting individuals, tearing up social cohesion and fuelling an atmosphere of fear and suspicion. By presenting political violence as an understandable consequence of the frustration felt in some quarters at parliamentary deadlock, the government isn’t just legitimizing it: it is wielding it as a weapon to threaten recalcitrant MPs, both in its attempt to force through Brexit and to win any ‘People vs. Parliament’ election that may follow.
Nothing epitomises the moral bankruptcy of the present government better than their willingness to release the poltergeist of violent populism as a cynical means to achieve their ends. Brexiteers have trivialised and diminished as “Project Fear” the concerns of those who predict chaos in the event of a no deal Brexit. The Government has embarked on its own scheme to cow opposition, and to stir up the malevolent energies that it hopes will bring it eventual victory: Project Provoke. We must shine a light on this dark strategy because Britain can do so much better than this and when rational argument prevails Brexit may be stopped for good.