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Matthew Parris

Those who warn of Brexit civil unrest are inviting it

2 February 2019

9:00 AM

2 February 2019

9:00 AM

There’s a famous (or infamous) method of negotiation or interrogation called ‘Good cop, bad cop’. You’re probably familiar with the idea. An individual whose cooperation is sought is approached by an apparently reasonable negotiator whose friendly advice is to co-operate because if he doesn’t then his colleague, who has a nasty temper, may fly into a rage — in which case our friend cannot answer for what this dreadful fellow might do. The good cop holds himself out as anxious to protect the individual from somebody much worse than himself. He does not of course condone this person’s behaviour in any way, but he’s sadly beyond his control.

I notice that elements on the Leave side of the Brexit debate are now deploying this good cop/bad cop routine. Here’s Iain Duncan Smith talking to the BBC early last month. ‘You think the country’s divided right now, wait until you hold that second referendum. There’s a very large chunk of people who will feel utterly betrayed and very angry and I just caution, look across the Channel — we are not that far away from that kind of process happening.’

This is desperate stuff.

Newspaper commentators, too, have taken up the cry. Read Tom Harris in the Telegraph. Treading more carefully than IDS, he mentions that ‘Remainers pushing for a rerun… dismiss all warnings of civil unrest and riots on the streets’ but then agrees we should not allow ourselves to be intimidated: ‘the police can handle that,’ he says, adding, worriedly, ‘(or should)’. Is he suggesting the police might not be able to?

Anyway, Mr Harris continues, ‘[a] convulsive and defining break between the democratic process and great swaths of the populace would seem to be the minimum expected consequence of such an act, and the cynical observer might conclude that this would suit a certain type of politician very well indeed… We are in uncharted territory, heading for unknown shores.’


Defending Theresa May’s proposed deal, Jeremy Hunt is less fastidious, speculating that if (say) another referendum produced a mirror-image reverse of the first, then Leavers ‘would be incredibly angry and I wouldn’t rule out real social instability in this country. And that’s why … we have to think what is the solution that is going to bring the country together.’

In other words, ‘support May’s deal or there’s going to be broken glass. Which of course we all deplore. Oh good heavens yes. But I’m just saying…’

And lest you suppose it’s only politicians and commentators on the right who want to warn us about bad people (no friends of theirs, of course) who might do bad things, here’s the ineffable Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for international trade, resisting the idea of a second referendum on the Today programme last year. ‘You never give as much succour to the extreme right as when you cut off the mechanism of democratic change,’ Mr Gardiner said. If Brexit were overturned, people (not him!) could ‘turn to other, more socially disruptive ways of expressing their views, and that is the danger here’.

This is disreputable. Make no mistake: whatever the protestations of those who wave in our face the possibility of social unrest, they are helping to talk it up. ‘Support May’s deal or people will riot!’ This is silly, irresponsible talk. Imagine you’re one of these thugs on the British far-right, and you hear IDS tell the BBC that if we allow a further referendum we could get something like the gilets jaunes here in Britain. Can you doubt it would quicken the pulse of certain troublemakers? Nobody is more encouraged than the barbarians to hear the cry ‘the barbarians are at the gates!’

And there is to me something deeply un-Conservative about this tack. A proper Conservative does not pray in aid of his argument by citing criminal elements that may otherwise be unleashed. Who would have looked kindly on those who told us to give ground to the IRA lest we offer them reason to bomb us?

So can there ever be a morally respectable case for using predictions of civil unrest as an argument against a proposed policy? Undoubtedly. The dividing line between the reputable and the disreputable use of ‘the mob won’t stand for it’ is the imminence or otherwise, and the certainty or otherwise, of the predicted disorder.

When Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax was first mooted, opponents on the left would have been disreputable to predict riots in Trafalgar Square if this passed into law. Nobody then had good reason to know disorder was likely, and such talk would have helped fuel the very response of which it warned. But later, when it was clear that order was close to breaking down in demonstrations against the tax, and the reform was bitterly and angrily disliked by tens of millions of people, it became only reasonable to remind policymakers of what was looming.

How imminent, then, and how certain would we judge widespread civil disorder to be, if MPs opt for a new test of public opinion on Brexit, three years after the first one? I cannot even begin to construct a case for forecasting this with confidence. Far more people have demonstrated against Brexit than for it, so far. Where and who are these imagined rioters in the north of England, smashing windows to stop a democratic test of public opinion (or to protest against its result)?

My best guess is there would be anger for a while, though probably not on the scale triggered by the Iraq war, and on nothing like the scale triggered by Mrs Thatcher’s battle with the coal miners. The culprits would be the usual suspects, whipped up by the usual suspects. And within a year or two it would all pass.

Prophesying dangerous subversion sparked by another referendum being, at best, wildly speculative, such prophecy is itself subversive. Civic-minded Brexiteers should have nothing to do with it. Consider the merits, not the mob.


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