Fighting talk: the 'civil unrest' story
In early September I sent out a tweet that went viral. It concerned a story in the Guardian, in which the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, qualified his general support for a second vote on Brexit by saying:
‘I have real concerns about a second vote. It would cause real unrest on the streets of Greater Manchester.’
He added that the only thing worse than this prospect was ‘crashing out of the European Union without a deal’. Only if everything else had been tried, and if No Deal seemed inevitable, should a second vote be considered, he said.
This was my comment on it:
It wasn’t one of my best. It was off-the-cuff, and ignored the fact that whatever other politicians felt, Burnham himself was as concerned to avoid shortages of food and medicine – the potential outcome of No Deal – as anyone. What had really struck me, though, was not so much that, but his weighing of a democratic process against the threat of possible violence, and the idea that one might be (perhaps should be) abandoned for fear of the other. Was this really where we were in Britain – democracy cowed by the threat of half-bricks and baseball bats? If so, the bullies and thugs had surely already won.
It clearly struck a chord on Twitter, too. The comments – which came thick and fast from both sides – were almost entirely focused on the possibility of civil unrest. And, as much as people feared it, at least as many seemed to threaten it – again, on both sides of the Leave/Remain divide. Of course, whether those people really meant it is another issue; what can be said with certainty is that such threats, whether bluster or not, resonate quite differently now from the way they might have back in early 2016. Another certainty is that during that time, the narrative of violence as a legitimate – even necessary – means of effecting political change has grown and spread to the extent that we are all at risk if being woven into it, whether we are willing participants or not.
Mention of civil unrest as a possible outcome of Brexit – or the wrong brand of Brexit, or the avoidance of Brexit – has been a recurring theme almost from the moment the referendum campaigns began. But this was slightly different. This was not a veiled threat from the fringes of the right, but an expression of concern from a senior elected politician of the moderate left. It was not some sweeping hypothetical, either, but a genuine fear that such unrest could become a reality in his own particular community in Manchester.
But where did this whole notion come from? How and why has it crept into our consciousness, persuading otherwise sensible, rational people on both sides of the debate to believe in it and fear it?
In peacetime, violence is abhorrent. In war, violence is expected – even necessary. To describe any struggle as ‘war’, therefore, prepares the mind for violence – for extraordinary action that may otherwise seem utterly unconscionable. That is the narrative that has been and continues to be peddled. And it is not ‘just a story’. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother controls and limits language in order to promote – or eliminate – certain modes of thought. Language is thought. Control one, and you control the other.
The roots of war-talk in relation to euroscepticism run deep. Back in 2012, when the UK was still high on the Olympics, Tory party vice chairman Michael Fabricant floated the idea of a pact with UKIP, to which Nigel Farage responded:
‘No pact with Tories: It’s war.’
By 2014, Farage could be seen tweeting: ‘Come and join our peoples army, let's topple the establishment who got us into this mess’. The language of violence, and the notion that political opponents were ‘enemies’, were starting to become more accepted. That same year, UKIP candidate Gordon Ferguson said that those who supported the UK’s involvement with the EU were traitors and should be hanged, while UKIP candidate Kerry Smith joked about shooting peasants. In 2015, yet another UKIP candidate, Robert Blay threatened to ‘put a bullet’ in his Conservative rival Ranil Jayawardena.
In May 2016, during the lead-up to the vote, Farage said: ‘I think it's legitimate to say that if people feel they have lost control completely, and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the EU, and if people feel that voting doesn't change anything then violence is the next step.’ It may be framed as a warning (and therefore deniable) but it nonetheless reads like a threat. Vote right, or else.
In his victory speech the night Leave won the referendum, Farage spoke of the result having been achieved ‘without a bullet being fired’. Outrage at his choice of words focused on their inappropriateness following the murder of MP Jo Cox just one week earlier. What fewer people questioned was why these words would be appropriate under any circumstances. Was this meant to be some sort of analogy? If so, an analogy for what?
In June 2016 UKIP councillor Terence Nathan posted on Facebook that it was ‘time to start killing’ Remain voters. When a Facebook friend suggested he ease back on the threats, he replied: ‘Not threatening anyone, no need for threats just a bullet’. Nathan afterwards dismissed the comments as a joke, but in the light of Farage’s previous statements and the shooting of a pro-Remain MP the previous month, no one was laughing.
In May 2017, Farage was once again in militaristic frame of mind. In another fiery speech he said he would, ‘don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front lines’ if Theresa May failed to deliver on Brexit. The imagery here – khaki, front lines – was very specific, and gives the clearest indication where this narrative was coming from. It’s not some abstract notion of war that is being evoked – no one gets whipped into a frenzy over abstract notions. It’s a specific war. The war.
The Second World War has some qualities that make it unique. It is relatively recent – within living memory for a dwindling few, though not for the baby boomers who fetishise it and who predominantly voted Leave. It was a time when Britain for a time stood alone, but heroically endured – the ‘darkest hour’ to use Churchill’s phrase. And – crucially – it was a just war.
Such things are rare. Most recent wars – Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War – are ethically problematic at best. WWII – the war in Europe and North Africa, at least – was against the Nazis. Whilst the reasons for countries going to war are many and complex, few would argue that standing against the Nazis was not a just cause. Associating your own cause with this specific war, therefore, is to assert it as similarly unassailable. The fact that democratic processes were suspended for the duration of the war may also give us pause for thought. A pragmatic necessity during a time of extreme need, it nonetheless provides a potential moral justification for the overruling of democracy and its replacement with violent action. Which, pretty much, is where we came in.
It wasn’t just Nigel making this association. Back in May 2016, Vote Leave’s Boris Johnson had helped the narrative along by talking about ‘historical parallels’ between the EU and Nazi Germany. Whether these parallels were real or not, and whether Brussels was really the new National Socialist Berlin, were not really the point – and little actual evidence was put forward to support them. The point was that the connection was made. This may start out appearing to be merely some sort of metaphor or analogy (which gives its originator deniability if a row develops) but a gradual slide into the literal is not ruled out. Those who wish to believe that the EU really is the enemy, and that this really is a war, and that those who support the EU are literally traitors, find confirmation in the words of leading figures. They talk of ‘getting our country back’ as if it is under literal occupation and in need of liberation (by the People’s Army, one assumes), while the tabloid media eagerly participate in the construction of the narrative with imagery evoking WWII (Spitfires, Churchill, White Cliffs of Dover) and headlines that talk repeatedly of ‘traitors’, ‘war’, ‘fighting’ and ‘enemies’.
The fact that there is no literal truth in this particular narrative is largely irrelevant. Participants are encouraged to respond to it in a gut level – to simply know they are right, rather than questioning the logic of the position. At a press conference the day before the EU referendum vote, Nigel Farage told those present to go out and vote with their hearts and their souls (voting with brains or with thought was neither mentioned nor encouraged). He also urged people to vote ‘with pride in this country and its people and together we can make tomorrow our independence day’ – apparently borrowing from the 1996 film Independence Day in which a heroic US president uses similar words to urge humanity to fight the invading alien hordes. This, in turn, gives a nod to the most emotionally charged moment in Shakespeare’s Henry V – when the king rallies the apparently doomed English army before Agincourt (spoiler alert: the English win).
But while it borrows shamelessly from everywhere, it is always WWII to which the narrative returns. This press conference had also featured an emotive video, in which the voice of Farage played over images of Spitfires and Winston Churchill.
It’s not the first time in recent politics that Spitfires – and all they represent – have been dragged into service. In 2009, the BNP used an image of a Spitfire as part of its anti-immigrant campaign, and in 2014, Britain First repeated the tactic on Facebook. In each case, however, these attempts to stir nationalist pride – with their implied hatred towards the immigrant ‘enemy’ coming from across the Channel – spectacularly backfired. Both Spitfires pictured were from Polish squadrons. While this attracted widespread ridicule from their critics – to the extent that the Facebook post was removed – facts rarely have any bearing on the allusions made or the images used. It didn’t seem to matter, for example, that the war being referred to was against exactly the kind of racist, nationalist ideology that both the BNP and Britain First espoused. It mattered equally little to the Leave campaigners that it was Churchill himself who had called for ‘a United States of Europe’ to safeguard peace, and had reiterated and expanded upon the idea on many occasions after the war. To them – and, presumably, many who supported them – he represented something else entirely; a vague, partly fictional half-memory of a time to which they yearned to return. This was not about facts. Facts got in the way. Hell, facts flat-out contradicted the image.
No, this was about gut, and emotion – voting with the heart, not the head.
There was a time, before we ever knew the word ‘Brexit’, when all this would have seemed laughable – peripheral lunacy in an otherwise rational world. Indeed, the Spitfire gaffes by BNP and Britain First were dismissed in just such a fashion. However, in the light of a referendum victory by Spitfire-worshipping Faragists, immediately preceded by the brutal murder of an MP, things are not so easily laughed off.
According to witnesses, Jo Cox’s murderer, Tommy Mair, called out ‘Britain First!’ before shooting and stabbing her to death – one month after Farage issued his warning that violence was the next step. Later, photos emerged of Mair holding a Britain First banner – which featured a picture of Churchill. The idea that Churchill’s ideals and Mair’s coincided in any way is, of course, ridiculous. But we are beyond fact here. Beyond argument. Because of this, some dismiss Mair’s actions as simply mad – but to do so is, I think, a serious mistake. Regardless of the state of Mair’s mind, the WWII narrative – the notion of the just war, of the need to fight, of the readiness to take up a rifle and don khaki for the good of Britain – has been a core element of the Leave campaigns, and its repeated emphasis on emotion over evidence has allowed a genuinely Orwellian state of mind to establish itself. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell described how the totalitarian regime of Big Brother fostered ‘doublethink’ which he described as: ‘The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed’.
This has not been without its challengers. To counter this use of emotive WWII imagery by the Leave campaign, four British WWII veterans came out in favour of Remain, making impassioned speeches about unity and the horrors of war – horrors they had actually witnessed for themselves. They included former head of the military Field Marshal Lord Bramall, D-Day veteran and former Royal Marine Patrick Churchill and RAF veterans David Meylan and Harry Leslie Smith. Churchill’s own grandson, Nicholas Soames, also came forward to say that Winston would back Remain. All this fell on deaf ears. The object of doublethink is to make truth irrelevant.
In the past two years the notion that civil unrest will happen – and that it is probably inevitable, because after all, this is a war – has been perpetuated almost daily, most obviously (but not exclusively) in the tabloid media, who lap it up and regurgitate its attention-grabbing messages with relentless fervour. When things flag, there’s always another hero in the narrative to pop up and remind us what it’s all about. In July this year, Farage’s friend and mentor Steve Bannon – former adviser to Trump and head of right-wing misinformation agency Breitbart – appeared on LBC saying ‘It’s war’ and calling on Leave voters to ‘rise up’ and fight. In case anyone was still in any doubt about the narrative he was pushing, he added: ‘If you've got the same grit we saw in the trenches in the western front, if you've got the same grit that was at Normandy that won World War II, then we're going to win this thing.’ Bannon also gave private pep-talks to Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Given all of this, one can hardly blame Burnham for voicing his fears. Those concerns are real. But it also shows that no one is immune to the draw of this powerful narrative – indeed, several leading Remainers have joined in the game by talking of parallels between Brexit and appeasement of Hitler.
There is grave danger in allowing ourselves to become involved in someone else’s narrative, however. Even if we believe that in doing so we are somehow resisting it, it’s not ours, and participants are only there to help bring that narrative to its natural conclusion. In short, by accepting the language of war, we not only begin to accept and legitimise the idea of war; we may – albeit unwittingly – help to bring it about.
I propose a change of narrative. A different way to fight. It also takes us back to WWII, but in a quite different way.
Hitler believed that the Blitz would break Britain. In his mind and those of his generals, the trajectory of the narrative was clear: they had swept across all of Europe, Britain was alone, and once its heart had been battered by a relentless bombing campaign Britons would see sense and capitulate. This was entirely logical, and, to them perhaps, inevitable.
But the population of Britain was not operating according to the same narrative. It had an entirely different narrative in mind – one which involved Britons never being slaves. That meant never giving up. How they went about this, however, was extraordinary. The best way to show you were not a slave, they decided, was to just get on with your normal life. To just keep on being British people, doing whatever British people do in all their eccentric diversity, and to not give Adolf the pleasure. So they did. They worked, they played, they cooked, they ate, they loved, they protected their children and cared for their neighbours. The challenges were enormous, the cost sometimes heavy, but they dealt with them – and just carried on. At the end of the day, this was what was most valuable, and what most needed to be defended, cherished and maintained – the ability of every person to go about their daily life with some sense of freedom, dignity and worth. This is not giving up – it wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. It’s the complete opposite. It’s dealing with it, but remaining civil. It’s taking back control.
So, next time you hear the all-too-familiar language – ‘war’, ‘enemy’, ‘appeasement’, ‘army’, ‘traitor’ – question the narrative that is being foisted on you, and stick resolutely to your own.
'The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.'
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Header image: FreeImages.com/JasonConlon