You have every right to roll your eyes when I tell you I’m campaigning for a People’s Vote. In fact, you are welcome to roll your whole face at any mention of Brexit and I won’t blame you. But, please, let’s stop with the sinister threats of ‘civil unrest’ should Parliament decide to hold a second referendum. I don’t remember anyone solemnly warning Theresa May to keep Britain in the single market just in case the Lib Dems got violent, so can we all agree to stop legitimising the far right in the same way, please?
There are, of course, valid arguments against using a referendum to solve this political crisis. But one of those arguments categorically is not the fear of violence in response to a lawful parliamentary decision. If someone threatens force, we dismiss their views out-of-hand. But look what happens when that same threat is made in the passive or by proxy. Look how we heed the cowardly words of urbane, middle-class politicians who start their speech by condemning the intimidation of People’s Vote campaigners, but in the same breath politely warn us that a referendum would cause civil unrest and there’s nothing we can do about that. Fair enough, I suppose. I’ll hurry up and change my views in case I upset the far right.
I don’t know if you saw the footage of Anna Soubry getting harassed on her way to work this month. It makes for frightening viewing. But even more horrific was the response of some alleged ‘moderates’ in Parliament and the press, who acknowledged that while you’d never catch them assaulting an elected official, we all really ought to be more careful and get on with delivering the hardest possible Brexit. At the time, Theresa May condemned the incident. Less than a month later, she has told us all that we best not have a People’s Vote in case it “threatens social cohesiont’. Euphemism of the century. And this from a woman who likes to portray herself as strong. Frankly, a failure to stand up to fascist bullies is not just weakness, but weakness gift-wrapped in cliché form. Shame on her.
And what a disservice to Leavers, too. What a patronising implication that 52% of Britain can be represented by angry men who send death threats to my colleagues and jeer at politicians on the street. Absolutely not. But if you really do think the worst of people and believe that a second referendum will unleash demons, surely the solution isn’t to shut up about your beliefs but to double down on our liberal democratic values and reinforce the rule of law?
If you still want to give the far right a voice then be my guest. Sit down with them. (Why not? They do legally own the term ‘will of the people’.) See how far it gets you. But what exactly do they want? For every MP to vote unanimously in favour of no-deal? Even if you tried to, how do you compromise with a mentality that is inherently implacable?
But most important of all, let’s not forget that, for many people, civil unrest is already a reality. Incidents of hate crime in the UK are shockingly high, and that is not because the far right have been ignored – it’s because our leaders keep listening to them. The status quo is the real danger: a government that runs scared not only from intimidation, but from the mere threat of intimidation. That is precisely why we need change. So before you warn me that the People’s Vote campaign will wind up the far right, please ask yourself: when did we stop being a country that stands up to bullies?
John Tothill is a writer, comedian and campaigner with Our Future, Our Choice