Theresa May is the latest politician to warn that pausing or even attempting to reverse Brexit will cause a huge backlash. Others have said that a new referendum will embolden the far right. Some have even suggested that a new referendum will lead to mass civil disorder on the streets.
People have different rationale for these views. There are those who are genuinely worried; there are those using the spectre of violence as an argument for inaction, or against a ‘final say’ referendum. The fear of such a backlash also seems to have convinced many in the Labour Party that the risks of opposing Brexit are too high.
Whatever their rationale, are they correct?
There is no doubt that there would be a huge and angry backlash from pro-Leave voters if Brexit was overturned or even paused. Obviously, this could be reduced if the pause was to find a consensus to deliver Brexit (such as our backing for a Citizen’s Assembly) or get a better deal with the EU.
However, it is essential people understand two factors about a “Brexit backlash”.
First, there will be anger and a sense of betrayal from core Leave voters even if a soft Brexit occurs. Most such voters want a total break from the EU, including a complete end to free movement of people, a dramatic decline in all immigration, and a total break from EU rules and regulations. Anything less will make them unhappy.
MPs who think they will be viewed as honouring the Referendum result while simultaneously keeping Britain in close alignment with EU rules and the single market are in for a big shock. They will be viewed (by these Leave voters) as betraying the spirit of the Referendum, especially when their hoped-for economic improvements do not happen.
Second, the people who are most likely to be angry about a Brexit betrayal, especially those who might resort to violence, are already angry. If it is not Brexit then they will become angry at something else. The people who were attracted to Stephen Lennon’s (aka Tommy Robinson) ‘Brexit Betrayal’ march recently are the very same people who are most hostile in Muslims and Islam more generally.
What is less clear is the form this anger will take.
One has to question whether the people who would be most angry – white men over 50 – are likely to riot on the streets. It is doubtful. Take Stephen Lennon’s ‘Brexit Betrayal’ demonstration as an example of how Brexit motivates an older audience, rather than those who attended his earlier anti-Muslim or ‘Free Tommy’ demos.
In polling carried out for HOPE not hate, when asked to give three emotions from a choice of eight, only 11% of 18 to 24-year-olds said that they would be angry if Britain remained in the EU. It is only when you get to men over 45 that you see the anger levels hit the 40% figure.
Of course, there is a risk that the football hooligan gangs, and the sort of men attracted to this orbit, could cause trouble. But there is no indication the football mobs are that motivated by Brexit in the same way they are by Islamist terrorism or grooming gangs. Very few football hooligans took up the call from the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) to back the ‘Brexit Betrayal’ march.
What is much more likely is that the Brexit backlash will take on a political form.
Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage has already indicated his intention to launch a new right-wing populist party in the event of Brexit being ‘betrayed’. Our polling suggests that this could attract 15-20% of the population. The impact of this party will be very variable across the country and is unlikely to hurt Labour’s chances of winning the next election.
We can’t delude ourselves that there will be no consequences with a ‘no deal’ Brexit either. If the dire predictions of food and even medicine shortages are proved correct, then there is a real chance of civil unrest as looting and hoarding occurs.
Britain had already entered a period of anger and instability before the referendum result exposed the deep divisions in our country, caused by a generation of globalisation and the financial crash. A significant number of people are going to be angry and feel betrayed whatever happens next.
Rather than that being a reason for not doing what we think is the correct decision for the country as a whole, we need to redouble our efforts to heal our divided country and to forge consensus.
Nick Lowles is chief executive of HOPE not hate