Let’s not be intimidated by Brexiteer thugs

A graphic with the slogan "There are only two genders", with 'female' attached to a white woman and 'male' to a Black woman who is very recognisably female.Yesterday we saw a group of thugs in yellow vests, clearly acting in imitation of the fuel protesters in France, intimidate the political writer Owen Jones, the journalist Dawn Foster (who wrote about the incident here) and the anti-Brexit Tory MP Anna Soubry in public. Clips on Twitter and YouTube show gangs of men chanting things like “two liars on Sky News” and “Soubry is a Nazi” as she tried to give an interview outside somewhere near Parliament Square, one of them tell a Black policeman that he is not British and another call a Black man who tried to follow Soubry ‘Lammy’, assuming he was the Labour MP David Lammy (who later tweeted “I wonder what it is that confused them”). Their leader is one James Goddard, who is an EDL sympathiser although he claims he has never been a member (although you may not need to be a member as such to join their demonstrations and shout their slogans), and has shared images that are obviously racist, such as the one in the graphic attached to this article, tweeted from his account on 3rd November last year (significant as the EDL has always denied being racist). We have had people suggest that this intimidation is only a taste of what is to come if there is another referendum or the Brexiteers’ demands are otherwise not met. This is not an assumption we should fall into.

Just to be clear, the “yellow vest” demonstrations in the UK have been tiny as every video of them demonstrates, including the one in Parliament Square yesterday. It has been claimed that they wear “high-vis” vests because they are normally a “low-vis” people ignored by the political classes. Nonsense. There would be no way of recreating the French protests, partly because the same discontent over fuel prices (particularly away from the cities in places where there is poor public transport) does not exist here, where fuel prices remain low compared to most of last year and partly because the majority of people do not have one here; in France each passenger in any car has to have a vest available in case of, say, a motorway breakdown. I have seen people referred to the group responsible for the harassment as a ‘mob’; there are not enough of them to justify that word. ‘Gang’ is more appropriate. So while it is highly likely that this group would attempt to step up its violence in the event of Brexit being stalled, it could be easily contained because there would be few recruits if most people still had jobs and did not have time to go running round the streets causing trouble. If, on the other hand, the economy sinks after a no-deal or bad-deal Brexit and lots of people are out of work, these thugs will have an easier job recruiting, particularly in the wake of something like a terrorist attack, because there will be more people with free time on their hands looking for someone to blame.

There are people exaggerating the situation and others rather disgracefully making excuses for the violence yesterday; some of them are on the Left and comparing the abuse to disparaging words said about Jeremy Corbyn or some of his front bench (e.g. Soubry calling John McDonnell a “nasty piece of work”, which really does not compare with physically intimidating people in the street and making threats of violence) and some claiming that their anti-Brexit stance makes violence against them inevitable or to be expected — notably Tim Montgomerie, founder of Conservative Home, and Brendan O’Neill. If we really were under the thumb of some sort of autocratic EU superstate and people were actually suffering rather than being mildly irritated by periodic stories about rules on the shape of cucumbers, perhaps these sentiments would have some justification, but these are a small group of racist thugs who threaten people who disagree with them and let us not forget that an MP was murdered while walking in a public place only two years ago by a far-right gunman. It only would have taken one of yesterday’s goons to have packed a knife and either Soubry or Foster could have been killed.

Equally ridiculously, yesterday Emily Thornberry accused the People’s Vote campaign of thinking “that their purpose is to slap the Labour Party around” and that “instead of spending their time trying to change people’s minds, they spend their time smacking the Labour Party around the head”. Nobody has been slapping anyone around in the Labour party and nobody is advocating violence of any sort; people are in a panic because the country gets closer to the deadline day by day and the Labour leadership is showing no real leadership on the matter, leaving many to suspect that their real aim is to allow a hard Brexit to happen so as to reap the result of the chaos that might ensue (as an acquaintance in the autism advocacy scene mentioned earlier today, “when a trade union goes on strike, members vote to strike but they also vote on whether or not to accept the final deal. You’d hope [the Labour party] would understand that principle”). There is simply sustained criticism and a few harsh words, that is all. It’s a bit distasteful to use this kind of language (or to amplify it on Twitter) while people are actually being threatened with violence by gangs of young men on the streets of London. Let’s not pretend that there is a “febrile atmosphere” as Matthew Goodwin did earlier today. There is a small group of thugs trying to cause trouble. That is all. We would be committing a huge folly by giving in to their intimidation.

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