Why threats of violence should not silence calls for a People’s Vote

PUBLISHED: 16:46 08 October 2018 | UPDATED: 17:03 08 October 2018

London Poll Tax Riots. Photograph: Peter Floyd.

London Poll Tax Riots. Photograph: Peter Floyd.

The most toxic of all arguments against a vote on a final say is the claim it would lead to violence, says MIC WRIGHT.

It took less than four months after the Brexit referendum for Nigel Farage to start issuing warnings of possible political violence in the event of what he calls “Brexit betrayal” but which someone without an LBC bully pulpit might call “thinking again”. Appearing opposite Gina Miller on the Andrew Marr Show, Farage spluttered: “If the people in this country think they are going to be cheated, they’re going to be betrayed, then we will see political anger the likes of which none in our lifetime have ever witnessed in this country.” Farage, 54, was alive during the miners’ strike, the poll tax Riots, the student protests of 2010, and the 2011 riots, to name just a few examples of political anger in the UK.

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Farage has returned to prophecies of impending repeatedly since. And he’s not alone. The latest Jeremiah is the Sun columnist, Tony Parsons, who predicted this week that “if Brexit is betrayed… our democracy will be damaged forever. If the will of the people means nothing, then you will see a nation that is forced to violent extremes”. He offers that prediction after asserting that Britain – the country of Oswald Mosley, Enoch Powell, the National Front, the BNP, and the EDL – has “no history of extremism”. That’s before you even consider the fact that a British MP, Jo Cox, was murdered by an extremist at the height of the referendum campaign.

Parsons says “it seems unthinkable that our tolerant, welcoming country could descend into the racist, xenophobic nation that was forecast by the doom-mongers of Project Fear”. Perhaps he should speak more often to residents of Britain who aren’t pale, male or in possession of one of those passports that Brexiteers are so blooming delighted may soon be turning blue. The notion that Britain is some cuddly, Richard Curtis creation of a nation is just not born out by the experience of black, Asian and ethnic minority people, EU migrants, Jews, and Muslims, all of whom have experienced an uptick in abuse and intimidation in the political climate that has swirled up since the referendum. Even before then, it is farcical to claim that Britain – where Theresa May’s Home Office paid for vans to intimidate immigrants and instituted a ‘hostile environment’ policy that has led to the appalling Windrush scandal – was some land of milk and honey.

A demonstrator is arrested during a rally attended by fifteen thousand people in support of the Miner's Strike. Photograph: Jean Gale/Keystone/Getty Images.A demonstrator is arrested during a rally attended by fifteen thousand people in support of the Miner's Strike. Photograph: Jean Gale/Keystone/Getty Images.

It is not just those on the right who have raised the spectre of violence tied to a ‘Brexit betrayal’. In August, Labour’s Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, suggested a second referendum could lead some voters to turn to “more socially disruptive ways of expressing their views”. His comments were backed by shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who said he feared “[opening] up any opportunities for the far-right [to exploit] this issue”, and pointed to violence at demonstrations against the jailing of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (more commonly known as Tommy Robinson).

The idea that, should peaceful agitation for a second referendum succeed, violence on the streets would be the inevitable result – and therefore those options should be rejected – is a truly dangerous one. It is an argument for a kind of pseudo-democracy where the public view can never shift and that once a majority has been secured on a question – no matter how slim – it is decided forever, regardless of the circumstances. It also empowers those most willing to threaten violence to achieve their aims.

If the Brexit referendum had gone the other way, with a similarly narrow win for Remain, Farage and others would have been vociferous in their calls for a second vote. In fact, the former UKIP leader said as much himself, just a month before the referendum, telling the BBC: “If we were to lose narrowly, there’d be a large section, particularly in the Conservative party, who’d feel the prime minister is not playing fair… there would be resentment that would build up if that was to be the result.” Now imagine how the Sun, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express would respond to columnists in other newspapers suggesting that a second vote shouldn’t be held because of the risk of violent protest. There wouldn’t be enough newsprint to carry all the denouncements of left-wing agitators and a decline in democratic norms.

Protests surrounding the Poll Tax. Photograph: PA Archive/PA Images.Protests surrounding the Poll Tax. Photograph: PA Archive/PA Images.

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There can be no justification for dismissing the continuation of a democratic debate and the idea that the nation might change its mind because of the abstract threat of extremists opting for bovver boots over the ballot box. It is the political equivalent of playing Monopoly with a drunken uncle who’s a bad loser and deciding to let him win so he doesn’t tip up the board and send the pieces flying everywhere. Only, in this case, Brexit has already tipped up the board and we’re now debating how to reset the pieces and stop the money from flying out of the window. Living in fear of tantrums is no way to run a society or a political system.

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