During the long years of political violence in Northern Ireland, British governments of every complexion routinely insisted that they “would not give in to terrorism”. We now know, from hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other sources, that the British government was negotiating with terrorists far more than it would admit to. But for public consumption, the line was always that if the terrorists wanted to be spoken to, they would have to give up violence first.
The Irish on both sides of the border are famous for their long historical memories. It did not escape notice throughout this period that one of the central causes of the generation-long “Troubles” was that the British government of 1914 gave in to the gun smuggling operation known as the Larne Gun Running.
Faced with armed paramilitaries getting their guns from Germany, and prepared to use them, the British allowed the Protestant counties of Ulster the option to opt out of the new, independent Irish Free State when it was formed after World War One. This was “giving in to terrorism” in the eyes of many at the time, and even more today.
Now British politics is gripped by the most divisive issue since Irish Home Rule – the one known as “Brexit” for short, and by many other, more aggressive, names by its supporters and opponents.
At the moment, no guns are involved. It should therefore be much easier to address this issue in the traditional British way, through its tried and tested institutions of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, and there should be even greater determination not to give in to terrorism, as it should not be any part of this process.
Instead we are seeing a political animal unlike any other. Brexit is not giving back sovereignty, it is undermining everything which makes up that sovereignty. Like the split in Ireland, it began to become a reality because the government gave in to terrorism. Now its enactment is threatened by further acts of terrorism, even if guns are not (yet) being used.
The arguments for and against the UK leaving the EU have not changed significantly. But these arguments are increasingly becoming irrelevant. The fate of Brexit is being decided by who is most afraid of whom – and whatever the outcome, the undermining of democracy cannot be good for anyone, as it leaves no protection against the sort of mob rule no civilized country should ever witness.
Actions speak louder than words
There has always been an undercurrent of resentment of the European Union in the UK. The British think they can do everything themselves, or with the help, in subordinate roles, of their former colonies. They do not think they have anything to learn from strange foreigners they know little or nothing about, who do not speak English and whose politics do not follow the British pattern.
Nevertheless, the EU has been there to complain about for 45 years. Most British voters remember when only the most extreme elements of the Labour Party, the people they were least likely to vote for, openly supported actually leaving it. Even when the Conservatives took on a radical right-wing hue under Margaret Thatcher, and obtained their famous EU Budget Rebate from those suspicious foreigners, it was still inconceivable that we would see the day in which the Conservatives came out against the EU and Labour for it.
Similarly, when the UK Independence Party was founded in 1993 it attracted some sympathy by producing rational economic arguments against continuing EU membership, but won very few votes. It had no hope of ever gaining a seat in parliament, and very little hope of winning even a local council seat unless the candidate had a personal vote. In a supreme irony, only the European Parliament elections, conducted under proportional representation, gave this most anti-European party a platform for its ideas.
That situation has not changed because new arguments have persuaded people to support Brexit. When the UK joined in 1973, the fors and againsts were pretty much the same. It has changed because British people have progressively lost faith in argument, and the political system as a whole, and the most unscrupulous elements have exploited that situation to make terror a more important factor than any political institution.
Most British people don’t have a personal problem with anyone who happens to be an immigrant. But they have been encouraged to believe that immigrants are taking everyone’s homes and jobs because the political system is rotten. It is the same political system which has encouraged people to believe that, to get the politicians off the hook for failing to provide enough jobs and homes for the locals. But if you are told a problem exists, and the political system has created it, what do you do?
Words do not speak at all
UKIP pretends to be part of constitutional politics, but is actually a terrorist organisation. It has stated several times that it speaks for the disenfranchised, those who cannot be heard by the political system because the system is rotten. It does not seek to help those people access the system, but to overthrow it and brand everyone who is part of it as corrupt. On many occasions, UKIP representatives have said that there will be violence in the streets if its policies are not enacted, which it would only say if it felt it represented those who see violence as the answer.
Similarly, the Conservative Party has bitter memories of its own internal terrorism. The small band of Brexiteers who once sat on its benches had got into parliament in the first place by going over the heads of those who set the official policy and appealing to local constituency members who were more reactionary. These MPs, who also felt marginalised even if they were cabinet ministers, soon found that they could force various leaders to cave in by ignoring the party structure and undermining them in plots and briefings, supported by bands of malcontents who felt their party had been stolen from them by revisionists.
Debate was replaced by fear of what these MPs might do, and what lengths ordinary party members would go to to undermine other MPs. It was this which propelled David Cameron into holding the Brexit referendum, an attempt to neutralise these forces by force of votes, not argument, which he would never have had to make if argument had been the determining factor in the process.
The Remain campaign rested for too long on the notion that sophisticated, civilized people automatically accepted EU membership, even if grudgingly. It would not get involved in counter-terrorism, hoping the public would choose reason, as it saw it, over threats. Too late it realised that general distrust of the political system was greater than it had imagined, and threats resonated more. Everyone wanted their day of shaking their fist, even if they didn’t know why, or what they wanted to achieve by doing it.
Only now, when all the political parties have given in to the threat of what Brexiteers might do, are Remainers fighting fire with fire. On October 20th around 700,000 marched through London demanding a people’s vote on the terms of withdrawal from the EU, with staying in one of the options available.
None of the arguments advanced by the marchers were new, and all have previously been dismissed by the government. The march wasn’t an attempt at persuasion but a threat: if you were afraid of the other lot before, you should be more afraid of our side now.
Brexit has not given the disenfranchised a voice. It has replaced voices with threats. The other side can only respond by doing the same thing. As this is the central political issue of the day, how long is it before the whole structure collapses, and all other issues are decided in the same way?
When all else fails
Theresa May has cobbled together a Brexit deal which has somehow been agreed by her cabinet. It has attracted very little real support however.
Brexiteers hate it because it does exactly what Remain said any deal would have to do: leave the UK at the mercy of rule makers in Brussels, bound by EU regulations without having any control over them. Remainers hate it because it will leave the UK isolated, with ever diminishing chances of regaining the economic position it had before the Brexit vote, let alone prospering.
Brexiteer Boris Johnson quit the government months ago over the Brexit deal, before it had even been agreed. This was interpreted as either running away from what he himself had done, or another act of terrorism designed to destroy the government from within, as his initial (and very sudden) support for Brexit had been interpreted.
Now other ministers from both sides of the argument are also running away, unable to argue but still determined to do so. Shailesh Vara has gone, Esther McVey and Dominic Raab have gone.
May has only lasted this long because no one else wants to be responsible for the Brexit many of them campaigned for. That situation hasn’t changed, but the Conservatives, of all people, would now rather have anarchy, with different factions, running scared of different interest groups, deciding everything by who can hurt the other the most.
Ballot boxes devoid of meaning
As May’s government is steadily alienating both its Brexit and Remain supporters by how it is handling this issue, there is a possibility it might collapse. Sooner or later, that will mean fresh elections. However there is no reason to believe that anyone will take those elections seriously.
Labour has consistently ruled out a public vote on any Brexit deal, and insists that Brexit will go ahead regardless of the consequences. Its leader Jeremy Corbyn supported Remain half-heartedly, and has spent most of his career either being sceptical about or downright hostile to the UK’s EU membership.
Labour also remains very vulnerable to threats because it is afraid of its own shadow. Having lost touch with its traditional support base in the 1970s it almost lost its second party status with it. It only rebuilt itself into a governing party again by trying to consign the old working class to history. Those people returned to Labour under hard leftist Corbyn, but having been marginalised for so long they are often sympathetic to Brexit, and Labour is too scared to open that wound again.
The Liberal Democrats were reduced to a tiny rump in parliament after going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. One of the reasons for this precipitous loss of support is that they were perceived as having sacrificed their principles to get into power, and stay in power, even though few electors had much idea what these principles were.
Always the most pro-European of parties, the LibDems were also the first to call for a referendum on the issue. So now they claim to be spearheading the demand for a people’s vote, bless them, but there is a lingering suspicion that if polls swung back in Leave’s favour they would find a way of backing out, so desperate they are for votes nowadays.
The Liberal Democrats are even more vulnerable to terrorism than the two bigger parties, and in no position to lead anything. Neither are the other parties in parliament, who all represent sectional interests of little interest to the broader UK electorate.
So even if a new government was elected, the general situation would be the same. The central issue in UK politics would be decided by threats, made by people who simply ignore the political system or openly despise it, much like the paymasters and leading advocates of Brexit, the newspaper magnates and Cambridge Analytica crowd who make their own rules, and try and bring down anyone who gets in their way.
Sheep in wolf’s clothing
The British government gave in to internal party terrorism by granting the Brexit referendum. It has continued giving in to it by insisting there cannot be any change of course, no matter how badly the UK suffers from the Brexit vote. Now the other side is using the same tactics, it is giving in to terrorism by drawing up the dog’s breakfast agreement it has, and refusing to countenance any deviation from that either.
Third World governments have consistently found it difficult to resist terrorism emerging from within their borders, or imposed by greater powers from without. The United Kingdom is not a Third World country. Its institutions should be strong enough to withstand attack from those who wish to overturn them. But having let the genie out of the bottle, one capitulation is leading to another as surely as night follows day, or ministerial resignation follows ministerial resignation.
Is that what the UK’s politicians or electors really want? If asked, they will say overwhelmingly that they think democracy is better than mob rule. But their politicians only want democracy when the outcome suits the terrorists they are in hock to, and that is why they are rapidly running out of ways out.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.