Brexit, threats and divisions

By Savi Hensman
October 1, 2019

There have been extraordinary scenes in Parliament and beyond after the Supreme Court ruled against the government. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and colleagues were widely criticised for using inflammatory words, then appearing to shrug off death threats to those opposing a ‘No Deal’ Brexit.

Church of England bishops are among those who have weighed in, stating that some language recently used is “unacceptable”, calling for respect for the rule of law and warning about divisions, while backing Leave. Yet they, along with many others alarmed at the fiery rhetoric and surge of hate, have failed to address the depths of the threat to truth, democracy and human rights and how these might be tackled.

Violent language

On 24 September, the Supreme Court ruled that suspending (‘proroguing’ Parliament) had been unlawful. This had been the finding of Scotland’s Court of Session, though the Advocate General (a UK government minister) had appealed against this. At the same time the High Court of England and Wales had ruled that suspension was lawful, against which anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller appealed. The top judges unanimously decided that the Scottish court had been right.

Some journalists reported this as a crushing defeat for the Prime Minister. But he refused to apologise, instead telling MPs that the Supreme Court had been "wrong to pronounce on a political question at a time of great national controversy." Sections of the media backed him, though others joined calls for him to resign.

For instance, an Express headline asked, “Unlawful? What’s lawful about denying 17.4m Brexit!” The next day, the rhetoric was notched up higher: “Furious Boris: Brexit rebels face ‘day of reckoning’”. Johnson had accused his opponents of signing a “surrender act” by seeking to prevent the UK from crashing out of the European Union at the end of October without a deal.

When an MP had pleaded with the Prime Minister to stop using terms such as “traitor”, especially after the murder of Remain MP Jo Cox and the death threats made to others, he said this was “humbug”, later claiming that “the best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox” would be “to get Brexit done.”

In the corridors of Westminster, another MP who had received death threats, Karl Turner, condemned Johnson’s “tone of language” to his senior adviser, Dominic Cummings. In response Cummings (a top Leave campaign strategist) said “Get Brexit done.” A senior cabinet minister (unnamed) told the Times that the country risked a “violent, popular uprising” if a second referendum went against Brexit.

“The sort of language I’m afraid we’ve seen more and more of coming out from No 10 does incite violence,” said former Conservative Cabinet minister Amber Rudd, and many others have raised concerns. However it is worth delving more deply into the reasons why Johnson and Cummings think such rhetoric might win votes in a general election.

The ‘will of the people’ and the good of the nation

Senior Brexit campaigners have largely pushed the narrative that delays in leaving are the result of an “elite”, including MPs and now judges, who have blocked the “will of the people”. The narrow Leave victory is also often portrayed as reflecting the voice of the underprivileged, largely in the north of England. Another angle is that of a boost to the UK’s wellbeing or at least national pride. All deserve scrutiny.

To begin with, it is impossible to be sure what the referendum result would have been if the law had not been broken, including through overspending and misuse of personal data. The principle that elections should be free and fair is fundamental to democracy: the wealthy and powerful should not be able to buy the results they want.

This is not to say that most Leave voters would not have voted that way anyway – but in such a close-run race, a small shift in intentions or turnout could have been enough. “Irregularities in elections” are “an attack upon national institutions which the nation should concern itself to repel”, stated a committee in 1947. So nobody can be sure what was (let alone what now is) “the will of the people”, even setting aside issues of the truthfulness of the claims made.

Also it might appear that those now in charge, especially where they have part of the Cabinet for several years, played a key role in failing to find, or even block, any deal which might win enough support to get through Parliament. A No Deal scenario, with the disruption and danger which might result, was not what Leave supporters voted for.

In addition, analysis of the vote suggest that, while deprivation and lack of social mobility were factors, numerous fairly well-off residents in southern England and the Midlands also backed Brexit. Lack of close contact with ‘foreigners’, while fearing their impact on neighbourhoods, also seems to have influenced some, though of course there were different drivers for different people. Competition over scarce public services and social housing and job insecurity are understandable concerns; but Brexit has in some ways made matters worse, for instance by driving away much-needed health and social care staff.

A surge in hate crime has been directed not only at European Union citizens in the UK (adding to the insecurity and rejection they and their families may feel) but also other minorities. Of course, most Brexit-supporters would not support such acts but a climate of hostility, stoked up by fighting talk by politicians and the media, can make extremists bolder.

A 2019 All-Party Parliamentary Group report found that ethnic and religious minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were facing rising harassment and violence, causing profound damage. The referendum “unleashed negative consequences upon many minority communities in the UK, seemingly within the context of ‘taking the country back.’” To survivors of hate and Northern Ireland residents who lost loved ones in the Troubles, which may restart without a backstop, what is meant by the bishops’ call to “not denigrate, patronise or ignore the honest views of fellow citizens, but seek to respect their opinions” is unclear. If many honestly believe that the country would be better off without us or that our lives do not matter, acting on this would give way to injustice and deepen divisions.

However creating space to listen to different stories, including of the hurt caused by as well as fuelling support for Brexit, and looking at how the disadvantaged might work together to challenge shared injustices, could be valuable. Churches have a potentially valuable role, working with others of goodwill, since they are present across local communities.

Various faith traditions have pointed to the value of clarity and truth as well as compassion when addressing tricky problems. Examining the political, cultural and emotional drivers of Brexit, including divisions in the ruling class between those wanting business as usual and No Deal Brexit enthusiasts who would like to see fewer regulations, is part of this. The human urge for power and dominance (or to line up behind the masterful) is another factor: if we are aware of how dubious rhetoric can tug at our emotions, we are less likely to give way.

An alternative, inspiring, vision of hope may also be needed: not simply challenges to racist, sexist and other forms of injustice but a more positive way in which people of any background or identity can feel valued and energised. Building solidarity, working together on meeting human need and protecting the environment may help communities to overcome the effects of threats, prejudice and hate.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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