Nick Cohen

Snobs and mobs agree on the cost of a second referendum

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Britain moved a step close to Weimar yesterday when the Prime Minister used the threat of terrorism to get her way. Being a conservative woman of the upper-middle class, Theresa May did not precisely mimic the cries of ‘there will be blood’ that come from the right’s more deranged corners. You don’t talk like that if you want to get on in Thames Valley society. Rather the Prime Minister issued her warning in the careful language of a bureaucrat. ‘There has not yet been enough recognition of the way that a second referendum could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy,’ she said. You would have missed her intent behind this seemingly bland statement unless you had been paying attention to the noise that surrounds her.

It is now standard to suggest that holding a second referendum will provoke violence, and that the violence will be justifiable. Indeed even the act of challenging a hard Brexit and asking for a second referendum is enough for the right to predict, in voices dripping in insincerity, that visits from hard men in leather jackets will follow.

Brendan O’Neill of this parish greeted the sight of far rightists harassing Anna Soubry with ‘it is entirely natural that she should become the focal point for people’s anger’. Tim Montgomerie agreed. With all the sincerity of Uriah Heep, he opined, ‘the abuse is unacceptable...but’ – and in listening to today’s hypocrites one should always remember Jon Snow’s wise line that ‘everything before the word “but” is horseshit’ – Soubry had no one to blame but herself. ‘A parliamentarian who advocates overturning a referendum result she promised to respect should not be surprised at unleashing such ugliness.’

Let us stand back. A neo-Nazi murdered Jo Cox before the 2016 referendum. Should we have said at the time that campaigning to keep Britain in the European Union provokes justifiable vengeance? Soubry, Dominic Grieve and many other MPs receive death threats, sometimes for advocating remain, sometimes merely for arguing against the catastrophe of a crash-out. How serious the promises of murder are, it is impossible to say: by definition, killers don’t become killers until they kill. But death threats are more than the usual ‘rough and tumble of politics’.

Of course, they utter the usual throat clearings and back coverings, but nowhere do we see Johnson, Rees Mogg, Farage and Banks telling their supporters to back off and shut up.

I won’t go on about the absurdity of arguing that giving ‘the people’ a second say on Brexit is an attempt to subvert ‘the people’s will.’ But instead make the wider point that predications of violent retribution against remainers are everywhere. As the Prime Minister’s euphemisms showed, to pick on O’Neill, Montgomerie and other random examples, is to miss how accepted the argument has become. Listen to mainstream broadcasters, and they too take it as a plausible point of view that there will be violence in the streets, and never ask the obvious questions about culpability.

Older readers will remember that the Conservatives once claimed to be the party of law and order. When confronted with a hijacking or Islamist attack, they were the first to cry that ‘we must never give in to terrorism’.

Now the snobs are uniting with the mobs. If they are not actually calling for violence, they are expecting it, justifying it, hoping for it, and wanting it. We should limit our democratic scope of action, they say, and restrict our choices because of the fear of a terrorism they anticipate with a revealing eagerness. I want to emphasise they are asking us to act on fear. The ‘civil discontent’ and ‘riots in streets’ they say challenges to Brexit will bring are their projections into the future rather than a reality we see around us.

The far left, and indeed large parts of the liberal mainstream, came to accept in the 2000s that the ‘root cause’ of Islamist terrorism was not religious millenarianism but the Afghan and Iraq wars, or inner city deprivation, or the legacy of colonialism. Conveniently these were all causes they opposed, and would have opposed if no bombs had exploded on the London Underground or in Parisian cafes. They did not care to think that by explaining away religious hatred as the product of rational secular causes, they were conscripting jihadis to their political project; saying that, unless Britain withdrew its troops from Iraq or tackled racism and poverty, it would pay the price in blood.

Now the right is trying far left tactics. And once again, the credulous mainstream is giving the indulgers of violence too easy a ride. Its partisans oppose staying in the EU or the single market, and would oppose it if there was no blood in the streets. But if blood comes, or if it can be imagined, then the right is quite happy to conscript men of violence under its banner. As no less an authority than the Prime Minister has told us: challenge Brexit and you are responsible for all that may follow.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

Topics in this articleSociety