On Sunday March 10th Birmingham City F.C. met fierce local rivals Aston Villa F.C. in an English Championship fixture. About nine minutes into the game a Birmingham City supporter, wearing a jacket emblazoned with the Z symbol representing that club’s hooligan group, ran onto the pitch and assaulted Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish. Grealish had his back to the intruder, and knew nothing about the incident until he felt the blow to his jaw, which had been aimed at the back of his head
The intruder, one Paul Mitchell, was arrested and subsequently jailed for 14 weeks. Despite this, he was cheered and applauded by around 15,000 Birmingham City fans at the ground who had witnessed his actions. A number of others applauded his actions on social media, including a certain Alfie Perkins, who remarked that after the punch Grealish had gone down quicker than his deceased nine month old brother had gone down into his grave.
When Grealish later scored the winning goal, and jumped into a crowd of his own fans to celebrate, he was again assaulted, twice, by one of the stewards Birmingham City F.C. was employing in an official capacity. This steward was also taken away by police, although not arrested. Another steward also assaulted another Villa player during the same celebrations, but was not spoken to by police, who had either not witnessed this or simply got tired of having to deal with all the mayhem around them.
What has any of this got to do with politics?
Welcome to Brexit Britain. The arguments for and against Brexit have been rehashed again and again, and the more people have seen the consequences of the referendum vote, the less they have liked them, in general. But despite defeat after defeat in parliament, the British government is persisting with a course of action it has always known is harmful to the country (in spite of its members’ oaths as MPs and ministers) and does not represent “The Will of the People” (because no manifesto was published to inform people what the Leave side would do if it won).
Because the Brexit vote has empowered people who feel disadvantaged by the rules made by “other people” – the ones about what sort of economy the UK should have, who should live in the country, and how everyone should supposedly act within a democratic society. Not only do they feel they have won, they feel that gives them licence to wilfully flout those rules.
By soldiering on into unbreakable deadlock, the government is trying to stave off the day when a parliamentary process is redundant, and no one listens to any politician any more – without realising, or without choosing to realise, that the longer it soldiers on, the closer that day gets.
Not in our name
England was once notorious for football hooliganism – or rather, co-ordinated violence which used football as an excuse to get people fighting. Thanks to a lot of co-ordinated effort, almost all of this has now gone. For many years, as Rogan Taylor, the former Chair of the Football Supporters Association, was fond of saying, a greater percentage of MPs has been ejected from parliament for misconduct than supporters ejected from football grounds for hooliganism.
Though the old hooligan clashes still sometimes occur, these are generally well away from the grounds where the games are actually played, and are usually extensions of political issues, with members of far-right groups still being prominent in such activities.
If people want to engage in partisan violence, football is no longer the place to do it, and many of the clubs most associated with hooliganism have made conscious attempts to change the image of their support bases – Manchester United, which in the early 1970s was strongly associated with hooliganism, is now a global brand equally notorious for attracting the “Prawn Sandwich Brigade” of well-heeled supporters from the most affluent parts of the country.
Birmingham City has had its share of hooligan supporters, as has Aston Villa, which was forced to play its first European match of 1982/83 behind closed doors after a fan had appeared on the pitch (though without attacking any players) during the previous season’s European Cup semi-final. Like other clubs, it has genuinely sought to rid itself of this connection. In response to the March 10th incidents it has banned both Paul Mitchell and Alfie Perkins from the ground for life, and will seek to prevent them from obtaining tickers for any away matches either, directly or through third parties.
But Birmingham City cannot pretend that the actions of these individuals were nothing to do with the club itself. It does not get the support of Aston Villa because it has not been anything like as successful. This has made the club attractive to supporters who have a chip on their shoulders – the very people who were the core supporters of Brexit, and have been threatening violence in the streets, or worse, if the politicians do not deliver what they voted for, because they think the vote puts them on top now.
It is not known which way Paul Mitchell voted in the Brexit referendum, if at all. But he knew that he could flout all rules of civilized conduct, and be applauded for it by thousands, because those thousands now feel that they no longer have to follow the rules of “those who sit above”, such as the EU and anyone who sympathises with it.
Mitchell could have taken the same actions elsewhere. But he knew that he would be applauded by a significant number of fellow Birmingham City supporters because the club of the “oppressed ordinary bloke” would attract those who thought his behaviour was acceptable. Indeed, he was presented as a hero by many precisely because he had assaulted an opposing player, not for anything else he was.
It was not long before a fundraising page appeared, asking for donations to pay the fine the court ordered Mitchell to pay Grealish for the assault. The page was taken down, but not before it had achieved the desired effect of saying that “we can do what we like now, and because we won a public vote for the first time ever, no one can stop us”.
Once it was only the extreme right which would glorify such thuggery and then treat every vote they ever got, which was precious few, as justification for their behaviour. Now it is a much larger segment of the British population, which cannot be marginalised as the extreme right has always been there.
Even if they never supported Brexit, or have ceased to do so, those who identify with that segment still feel that they have been condemned for not being part of the ‘liberal elite’, and must therefore behave in ways that same elite considers unacceptable. This can be as benign as watching pornography in public or telling people of colour to go home, or as extreme as publicly assaulting footballers who play for the opposing team.
But any form of thuggery is a threat to politicians who feel that the only way to do things is to play their games by their rules. Therefore the British government is still trying to find a way to reach a Brexit deal which will bring the contrarians back into the political fold.
It won’t happen, and they know it won’t, but the only other choice is adopting the same tactics themselves. Should that happen, we all know who would win a fist fight between an increasingly isolated Theresa May and a bunch of football hooligans.
Road paved with brick walls
Under any other circumstances, Theresa May would no longer be in office. The only issue her government has the time to address is Brexit, because it has complications that no one on either side foresaw before the vote. Yet it has failed to deliver anything anyone wanted when they voted in that referendum, and its proposals for doing so have been voted down in parliament time and again.
The original Brexit deal was voted down in January by what some consider to be the biggest margin in history May had the nerve to bring that deal back to parliament on March 12th, but it was soundly rejected again.
On March 13th MPs voted that the UK would not leave the EU without a deal at any time, under any circumstances, meaning the UK cannot just leave and face the consequences, the outcome May had threatened them with to try and force her deal through. On March 14th they voted for a motion compelling her to ask the EU for an extension of the UK’s departure date beyond March 29th, the date the UK government has set in law for leaving when the EU did not want it to go.
If all the other EU nations do agree to an extension, as they probably will, the question is whether this will affect the forthcoming European Parliament elections. A delay of two weeks, which is unlikely to produce any saleable deal, would mean that in theory the UK could leave and its 73 European parliament seats would be reallocated proportionally to other EU members. If it is longer than that, the UK would still take part in the Euro elections, even though theoretically they would soon become irrelevant.
The Euro elections are where UKIP first made an impact, their seats having risen from 11 in 2004 to 13 in 2009 and then 24 the last time round in 2014. Only later did it make gains at local council level, and never in the UK parliament, which has always made its post-referendum rallying cry of “respecting the will of the people”, i.e. those who have consistently refused to vote for UKIP, doubly ironic.
Now UKIP is a busted flush, which has lost practically everything it once had and whose present leader no one can name or recognise. The electors believe it has served its purpose by forcing and winning the Brexit referendum, and the man behind its rise, MEP Nigel Farage, has long left it and now set up an alternative party of his own, and with even fewer members. But will either party surge in support in new Euro elections? Few would believe it even if they saw it.
The British government is going nowhere on Brexit, as it is unlikely to ever manage to get a deal through parliament and then sell that to the country. Brexit Fatigue, the idea that an electorate sick of hearing about it will agree to some arcane proposal just to make it go away, does exist. But that electorate increasingly wants to forget about Brexit as a whole, rather than accept this or that version of it to be rid of it.
The only extension which will pass through pariament or the public now is an indefinite one. If one is granted, it is unlikely that the voices blaming the EU for everything they don’t like will be heard as readily again, now people have seen the reality of the leaving process.
Not so strange bedfellows
With the politicians unable to deliver what those who feel entitled by the Brexit referendum want, that segment of the population has nowhere to go but outside the political system they feel marginalised them in the first place. But they will not go quietly, as they are no longer willing to be malcontents within a broader system. They feel entitled to make their own rules, having had their brief hour of glory, and are more willing than before to embrace everything they know the “other side” doesn’t approve of.
It would be wrong to characterise all leave voters as football hooligans, supporters of violence or even disadvantaged. The press barons and toffs who long pressed for it would never be seen dead wearing those labels. But as any country which experiences civil war finds, conflict is not caused by poverty but by new wealth. Give a new group of people an influence they never had before, whether political or economic, and they think their opinions are more important than before, and they have a right to do whatever they want to get rid of those who don’t listen to them.
The UK is not on the brink of civil war. But its institutions are under serious threat. As Eastern Europe’s Communists found in 1989, if the people ignore the institutions of state they can also overthrow them. Brexiteers may be in a minority now, but the day may come when the majority can only counter them by using the same methods, not through the ballot box and the institutions of state.
Like all Prime Ministers, Theresa May doubtless thinks of how she will go down in history. With whom will she be compared? Her incompetent handling of Brexit, and lack of any achievement or personality, suggests she will be bracketed with dimly recognised counterparts from past centuries such as Henry Addington or Andrew Bonar Law, a position few would wish to be in.
But that would be the better outcome. Unless she finds a way to sort out the mess she has created, there is a serious possibility she will be lumped in with another figure of self-inflicted tragedy – Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister, as yet, to have been assassinated.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.