Would scrapping Brexit spark a backlash from the far right? Would keeping Britain in the European Union, even via the same democratic mechanism by which we voted to leave it, inevitably lead to votes for overtly racist parties, waves of protest, even violence?
Such is the contention of some of those now opposed to the “People’s Vote” campaign, which is calling for a public vote on the final Brexit deal in order to check that Britain really wants to leave the European Union, in the hope it’ll decide that it doesn’t.
I can’t honestly say I think they’re wrong, either. Referendums have a nasty habit of emboldening those whose views are least moderate, as Scotland discovered in 2014 and the whole of the UK found two years later. (The AV referendum radicalised nobody, of course, but only because nobody much cared in the first place.) The 2016 referendum may have killed Ukip – but it also shattered long-standing taboos against full-blown public bigotry. If we hold another, there must be at least chance it’ll make the latter problem worse, while giving hard right parties the grievance they need to become a force once again. And, really, would you bet against a far right backlash at this point in history?
Perhaps not. Nonetheless, I think this argument is bunk – not because cancelling Brexit couldn’t lead to a far right backlash, but because delivering it seems all but certain to.
Let’s remind ourselves of how things would go in the event of a No Deal Brexit. A government report, leaked earlier this month to the Sunday Times, warned that the Port of Dover would collapse “on day one”, unable to cope with the required checks on the goods coming into the country. “The supermarkets in Cornwall and Scotland will run out of food within a couple of days,” a government source told the paper. “Hospitals will run out of medicines within two weeks.”
And this was not even the most severe scenario presented to ministers, only the moderately-bad one. The Sunday Times, perhaps thankfully, didn’t elaborate on the “Armageddon” scenario.
Even if doomsday doesn’t come to pass, other, very visible problems seem highly likely. Brexit could mean the UK leaves the Euratom agreement, which governs the transport of radioactive materials of the sort used in medicine; and it’ll certainly hit NHS recruitment. So, NHS waiting times may grow.
And waiting times at airports almost certainly will. Well-paid jobs will go, as more companies follow Airbus’s lead and decide that access to the European market matters more than their presence in the UK. More poorly paid ones will open up, but it’s hard to imagine a burst of national enthusiasm for picking fruit. In a hundred tiny ways, Brexit will create a Britain that is very slightly worse.
When these problems come to pass, who do you think the Brexiteers will blame? Can you imagine Boris Johnson appearing on TV to admit that he’d arsed it up? A statement from Michael Gove, announcing he’s been wrong all along?
Of course not. The culprits will be wicked foreign bureaucrats, plotting to ruin things for decent, honest Britons once again. Or it’ll be the fault of the prime minister for betraying the cause, or the civil service, for sabotaging it. Economic crisis, perfidious foreigners, enemies within – if you can come up with better pre-conditions for a hard right revival, I pray I never live to see them.
Perhaps we won’t get an economically ruinous Hard Brexit, though. Perhaps we’ll stay in the single market, and the customs union, and all the other less famous but vital European institutions, and none of that will come to pass.
Even in the unlikely event that the Tory Brexiteers accept this, though, persuading the EU27 to agree such a deal will probably require ongoing freedom of movement, large payments to Brussels or, most likely, both. In such a scenario we may avoid any sudden economic collapse – but the perfidious foreigners and enemies within parts of the backdrop would still be there, and you can be damn sure Nigel Farage will be available to point to them hourly.
The bottom line is, it’s hard to see any plausible scenario that won’t disappoint Brexiteers, and lead to cries of betrayal. They were promised an impossible combination, of more money and fewer immigrants, greater influence and greater control. But they can’t have all those things: real life requires compromise, and utopia does not exist. When that penny drops, they’re going to be angry – and some of them are going to lash out.
So, yes: cancelling Brexit might trigger a hard right backlash. But I can see no way that delivering it won’t do the same. The only difference is, we’ll have less stuff when it happens.