Using the threat of other people’s criminal violence to demand you get your way is despicable from anyone. It is the politics of the protection racket. It’s not, sadly, altogether unusual these days, but what’s new in recent weeks is threefold.
First, these threats are coming directly from government. Not from the prime minister on the record, but anonymously, from “senior sources” and “No 10 briefings”. These threats are then being given credibility by widespread dissemination – in print, on broadcast and, above all, online – by journalists who might do well to question whether they should be broadcasting or printing such comprehensive statements to which no one is prepared to put their name.
Anonymity is often one of the worst poisons of our politics and now it’s a key tool of government strategy, not least because it creates process stories that distract from the horrendous damage that government policy is doing, and will go on doing, to working people’s lives.
Second, the people of whose violence we are supposed to be frightened are being both identified and briefed on acceptable triggers by the government. Leave voters, the subtext of all this briefing suggests, are all supposed to be furious, to be liable to resort to unrest. As someone who represents thousands of people who voted Leave, I find this a vile smear on my constituents. I don’t think that Britain would be well served by leaving the EU, but the overwhelming majority of people who voted to leave are not potential criminals: it is appalling to suggest they might be.
Leave voters are not the violent far right: instead, they are decent people with whom, on this issue, I happen to disagree. Most of them voted not for a dramatic rupture with our European neighbours but for leaving with a good deal, as they were so often promised in 2016. The transformation of what Brexit means from “with a deal, of course” to “at any cost, on an arbitrary date” has been extraordinary. The mantra that we can “get Brexit done” quickly is one of the biggest lies of all. Brexit is – at best – a decade-long project that will devour our politics.
As well as smearing half the population, the government’s unsourced briefings tell us quite specifically what the government thinks might trigger violent criminality. An extension to article 50. A confirmatory referendum. Further attempts by parliament or the courts to ensure the rule of law. So the government is preparing not merely to excuse but to shape for its own purposes the threat of violent unrest. Quite why anyone should believe that a referendum will cause riots, but the government’s preferred option of a general election centred on Brexit will be absolutely fine, is entirely beyond me. How can anyone with any shame maintain with a straight face that two democratic events will be so different in this regard?
Third, for all the government’s denials – and it’s hard to trust a government that uses lying so systematically both as a way of evading responsibility and as a tool for creating distractions – there is the possibility that these efforts to whip up civil unrest, and the fear of it, have a darker purpose. That the unrest they claim is a risk is intended not merely to happen but then to provide a pretext. A couple of minor incidents might see the prime minister reach for the emergency powers in the Civil Contingencies Act without time for the courts to stop him. After all, it is no good Brexit being subsequently ruled unlawful, after we have already crashed out in international law.
Now I am used to threats of violence, sadly: like all MPs, I’ve had people making threats about me and my family that are chilling. Many are from people who hide behind false names or strings of numbers. But the government seeking to use these threats to serve its purposes is sickening and unprecedented.
I find it hard to forgive Tory MPs for nearly a decade of voting for the systematic impoverishment of my most vulnerable constituents, but I had thought better of many of them than to support a government like this. I hope in the votes ahead they do not forget that it is their prime minister who has taken us to this dangerous and bitterly divided place.
Read Bridget’s article in the Observer here