I’ve heard a range of politicians say that we must go through with Brexit for fear of the damage that would be caused by doing anything else. Their concerns include the betrayal that would be felt by people who don’t normally vote but were motivated this time, by people whose “Leave” vote was a vote against “the elite” and would feel let down if “the elite” avoided Brexit, and by people who would see any attempt at a People’s Vote as a betrayal of the 2016 one.
Logically, this doesn’t hold that water. We don’t see it as undemocratic to have General Elections every few years. Even Jacob Rees Mogg is on record as suggesting two referenda, with a second one to come after the renegotiation is completed (though he now seems to have forgotten this).
The danger of not leaving
From the Leave side, Nigel Farage and his supporters have been talking of “Brexit betrayal” and standing up to the elites in a way that is clearly trying to mobilise resentment at Brexit being “stolen”. Outside politics, I’ve heard people talking of the “simmering anger” of people, particularly in the North, who voted Leave because they felt ignored, and would have that feeling reinforced if Brexit didn’t happen.
On that scenario, Brexit being stopped, either by a People’s Vote or by the article 50 notice being revoked, would unleash significant anger. I’ve heard fear of rioting in the short term and a resurgent far right capitalising on people’s frustration.
The danger of leaving
But actually leaving presents a different path to a similar destination. Brexit-supporters would be celebrating rather than rioting if it actually happens. But what happens when the things promised don’t materialise?
I had a foretaste of this recently in a vox pop on Radio 4 where someone asserted that the BBC is biased in favour of Remain because it wasn’t running lots of stories about the opportunities of Brexit and the bright future it promises — not realising that the BBC isn’t running those stories because that bright future doesn’t exist.
What happens when people gradually discover that Brexit means hospital waiting lists getting longer because the NHS is short of staff, and the promised £350 million a week turns into less money because of a Brexit-induced recession? What happens when the promised trade deals don’t materialise, or turn out to be far from advantageous to the UK? What happens when the “bright future” turns into people losing their jobs?
This isn’t just about lies. In February 2019 Honda announced that it was closing its plant in Swindon. They were quoted as saying in the British media that this was not to do with Brexit, but those who know the situation in Japan dismiss this as fanciful and the Japanese media reported Brexit uncertainty as contributing to the decision. The obvious reading is that Honda are being diplomatic to avoid hurting UK sales. That’s good commercial logic, but papers over the problems.
Imagine the situation a few years after Brexit. The British economy has shrunk. The bright future has not materialised. The UN has re-distributed seats on the Security Council and decided that it does make sense for the EU to have two, but not for Brexit Britain to have one of these instead, so our sense of our own standing in the would has gone down. This is not the future those who voted Leave thought they were getting. How do they respond? Who do they blame?
This is actually the moment when the far right problem becomes serious. Financial lack and national humiliation fuel resentment, as they did in Germany between the wars. Those who voted Leave might turn on those who lied to them, but are more likely to be persuaded that their bright future has been stolen. I have Jewish friends worried that European history will repeat itself and they’ll be the scapegoats. Muslims, ethnic minorities and LGBT people are other groups who could each feel jumpy.
Maybe there won’t be a well-defined scapegoat. That’s good for those who’d otherwise be in the firing line. But the scapegoating mechanism is a way of getting rid of unbearable emotions. In an individual, if they don’t go that way, the worry is that this turns into depression. In a group, that would show itself as a turning inwards with people falling even further behind economically. That’s again ripe territory for a charismatic leader.
So, whichever way things go, there is a risk of fuelling support for the far right, and actually delivering Brexit carries the greater risk.
There’s much less likelihood of Remainers taking to the streets if Brexit goes ahead contrast the size and peacefulness of the Remain / People’s Vote marches with the six arrests at the recent (tiny) pro-Brexit march in February 2019. The sense of alienation will be real if Brexit happens, but Remain support clusters in the middle of British politics: a large number of Liberal Democrat MPs being elected as a result of Brexit happening doesn’t carry the risks of a lurch to the right.
How to avoid a right-wing backlash
This needs trustworthy politicians. Facism becomes dangerous when people find a leader onto whom they can put their emotions, who responds by whipping those emotions up. But not all leaders who carry strong emotions are fascist. Barrack Obama is an outstanding example of a wise politician who connected with people’s sense of alienation to create possibilities for inclusion. This needs someone who comes across as stable and trustworthy, who can earn people’s trust when they say that leaving is not the answer, and earn their respect when they engage seriously with the parts of the UK that are hurting.
In British politics we have some possibilities. Kenneth Clarke, Jo Swinson, Chuka Umunna and Caroline Lucas leap to mind, as people who can earn people’s trust to deliver what will work for them, rather than whip up their anger. But this is a difficult task, and getting harder as things drag on. I am far from sure that Theresa May (or most of her cabinet) are up to it. This does point to a change of Prime Minister or to a big change in how Theresa May is operating. Neither of those are easy. But the last thing the EU or the UK needs is Britain tumbling into Brexit for fear of a lurch to the far right, and in the process precipitating an even worse one.