Murderous Intent and Breathtakingly Cynical Opportunism: The Contours of the Brexit-Fuelled New English Civil War


Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings.

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The last few days have been a particularly dispiriting time to be living in Britain, as anger over the failure of the UK to leave the EU — anger deliberately provoked by our disgraceful Prime Minister Boris Johnson — has begun manifesting itself in threats of, and incitements to violence by prominent Brexiteers.

Boris Johnson, elected by just 92,153 Tory Party members, and with no majority in Parliament, is largely leading this thrust towards violent, and even murderous intent. Last week, Johnson, who is aggressively pushing for a no-deal Brexit on October 31, was compelled to recall Parliament, after the Supreme Court ruled that his decision to prorogue (suspend) it was unlawful, but when he appeared before MPs, he not only failed to apologise, but suggested that the court’s ruling was wrong.

Since then, he has begun suggesting that the justices should be approved by Parliament, which is alarming in and of itself, but the biggest immediate problem with his rhetoric is that it adds fuel to Brexiteers’ notion of judges as “the enemy”, and as “traitors”, which began when, after the referendum, the High Court supported a lawsuit brought by the businesswoman Gina Miller, establishing that Parliament had the right to be consulted before Article 50 (triggering the UK’s departure from the EU) was invoked by the then-Prime Minister Theresa May.

Anyone with a keen sense of irony was aware that sovereignty in the UK resides in Parliament — which is what those who voted for Brexit are supposed to want returned to the UK — but it seems that their notion of sovereignty is hopelessly confused, and that what they prefer instead is the Daily Mail fuelling their seemingly insatiable desire to be victims by publishing a front page describing the judges as “Enemies of the People.”

In addition, when Parliament reconvened on Wednesday, Boris Johnson indulged in a spree of inflammatory rhetoric, calling the Benn amendment, passed by Parliament to block a no-deal Brexit by forcing the PM to ask for an extension beyond the deadline of October 31, if a deal has not been agreed with the EU, the “surrender bill”, and regularly mentioning opposition to a no-deal Brexit as “capitulation.”

However, when a number of women MPs expressed their fears about the death threats they regularly receive from Brexiteers, in response to the increasingly febrile atmosphere in which Johnson is playing a major part, he dismissed those fears as “humbug”, and, adding insult to injury, suggested — both illogically and offensively — that the best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox, the pro-Remain MP who was murdered by a far-right extremist just before the referendum, was to “get Brexit done.”

The next day, a man was arrested in Birmingham after banging on the windows of the constituency office of Labour MP Jess Phillips — who “revealed last year that she had received some 600 threats of rape in the space of 12 months”— and reportedly shouting “Fascist” at her, but instead of backing down Johnson has continued to defend his position, brushing off critics including his own sister, Rachel, who told Sky News, “My brother is using words like surrender and capitulation as if the people standing in the way of the blessed will of the people as defined by 17.4m votes in 2016 should be hung, drawn, quartered, tarred and feathered. I think that is highly reprehensible language to use.”

On Friday, former minister Amber Rudd, who “quit the government and resigned the Conservative whip earlier this month in protest at the prime minister’s policies”, also weighed in, declaring, “The sort of language I’m afraid we’ve seen more and more of coming out from No 10 does incite violence. It’s the sort of language people think legitimises a more aggressive approach and sometimes violence.” Rudd compared Johnson’s behaviour to that of Donald Trump during the US presidential election in 2016, and added that “the casual approach to safety of MPs and their staff [was] immoral”, as she also urged ministers to “consider their own judgments rather than be desperately loyal.”

Meanwhile, the escalation of inflammatory rhetoric has continued unabated. Johnson’s chief advisor, the public school-educated, self-styled rebel Dominic Cummings, who has contempt for the whole of the British establishment, which he petulantly wants to destroy, and was campaign director of the Vote Leave campaign, was confronted last week by Karl Turner, the Labour MP for Hull East. Turner told Cummings that Johnson’s attitude in the House of Commons had been “appalling”, and that he had received threats that were “incredibly threatening” and “credible”, Cummings’ only response was “get Brexit done”, his and Johnson’s insistent mantra, which Cummings, presumably, thinks will have as much resonance as his winning phrase for Vote Leave — “take back control.”

In addition, the posturing provocateur Brendan O’Neill, a self-styled ‘libertarian’, who has gone from the far-left of the political spectrum to the far-right over a tawdry career as an alleged journalist, was inexplicably invited onto the BBC’s Politics Live show, where he said he was surprised that there hadn’t been riots on the streets regarding Britain’s failure to leave the EU, and, when challenged, said that there “should be” riots.

And in Newport, at a Brexit Party rally, Nigel Farage told the crowd that, “once Brexit is done, we will take the knife [to] overpaid pen-pushers in Whitehall.” He later claimed that he was only suggesting job cuts, but in today’s political climate words that suggest physical violence will undoubtedly be taken literally.

Perhaps some readers think I’m being unnecessarily alarmist, but it only takes a brief foray into the sewer of the Brexiteers’ social media accounts to reveal that violence and death threats are being advocated, urged and encouraged on an ongoing basis and to an alarming degree.

Last month, Robert Vidler, a 64-year old from Harrow, was jailed for 18 weeks after making threatening phone calls to six MPs. Tory MP Nicky Morgan was told her “days were numbered”, former Tory MP Nick Boles (who resigned the whip in April and is now an independent MP) was told, “we know where you live”, and was threatened with having his throat cut, Labour MP (and shadow Brexit secretary) Keir Starmer was told that he was a walking “dead man” and a “traitor”, and that Vidler would “cut his neck”, and Dominic Grieve, one of 21 Tory rebels sacked by Boris Johnson, was told, “You’re dead, Grieve, we know where you and your family live.”

And just days ago, a serving British soldier, who is now being investigated, sent a tweet to the Labour MP Angela Rayner warning her that she will “perish when civil war comes”, and suggesting that people who voted for Brexit would be “gunning for blood if we don’t leave.”

The undiminishing insanity of Brexit

And behind it all, of course, is the reason for all this anger — the UK leaving the EU, which, although voted for by a slim majority of those who could be bothered to turn up to vote in the EU referendum on June 23, 2016, remains an aspiration of — to be blunt— colossal stupidity.

Leaving the EU — and most particularly without a deal — will be the most insane act of voluntary economic suicide undertaken by any country in living memory, fatal to a huge number of businesses, leading to shortages of food and of crucial medicines, the probability of some sort of martial law, seemingly unreconcilable problems regarding the Irish border, which may well reignite “the Troubles”, a renewed push for independence in remain-majority Scotland, and chaos for the millions of British citizens living in EU countries. EU nationals living in the UK, meanwhile, have been treated as second-class citizens since the referendum, and are now required to jump though all kinds of dubious hoops regarding their “settled status” in the UK.

Three years and seven months since David Cameron formally announced the referendum, in February 2016, I have still not heard a single coherent argument about why it is necessary for the UK to leave the EU. Apparently, the notion of regaining our sovereignty was considered to be of great significance, but for the most part people seem to have been successfully lied to during the referendum campaign — by the likes of Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson, who notoriously told them that, by leaving the EU, we would regain £350m a week to spend on the NHS, which was patently untrue.

Clearly, what was also hugely significant was the notion that we would stem immigration to the UK — but again, those pushing this message mostly glossed over the fact that our economy largely relies on immigration: in the NHS, in farming, and in countless low-paid jobs that most disgruntled British people haven’t even thought about, and as Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian explained last year, the real damage has been caused by the cynical “ages of austerity” introduced by the Tories in 2010.

In an article I wrote just two weeks after the referendum, I shared with readers a passage from an astonishing briefing by Chatham House (aka the Royal Institute of International Affairs), entitled, ‘Britain, the EU and the Sovereignty Myth’, in which it was noted that, “Apart from EU immigration, the British government still determines the vast majority of policy over every issue of greatest concern to British voters – including health, education, pensions, welfare, monetary policy, defence and border security. The arguments for leaving also ignore the fact that the UK controls more than 98 per cent of its public expenditure.” (emphasis added)

Moreover, while there are different groups of Brexiteers — the dispossessed in places that have suffered horribly since Margaret Thatcher started Britain’s neoliberal power-grab in the ’80s (which is what the problem is, rather than the EU), old rural Tories obsessed with a fantasy past viewed through rose-tinted glasses, Lexiteers, who are right to dislike neoliberal tendencies within the EU, but surely misguided in thinking that isolation in an independent country in Tory control is any kind of solution, and, in particular, the powerful backers of Brexit, who, while selling the notion of “taking back control”, seem actually to be primarily enraged in profiteering, making a fortune by betting on the Brexit-fed collapse of the pound, whilst simultaneously believing that they will be able to continue making a fortune in a post-Brexit Britain shorn of all protections for its workers and citizens, a slave pool to be exploited by whatever plunderers these opportunists can get into bed with.

Rachel Johnson also touched on this when criticising her brother last week, attributing his aggressive behaviour to the people behind him “who have invested billions in shorting the pound in expectation of a no-deal Brexit.” This claim has since been picked up on by the former chancellor Philip Hammond (one of the 21 rebels sacked by Boris Johnson), who stated in a column for the Times yesterday that, “Boris Johnson asserts, ever more boldly, that we will leave the EU with or without a deal. But as his sister has reminded us, he is backed by speculators who have bet billions on a hard Brexit – and there is only one outcome that works for them: a crash-out no-deal Brexit that sends the currency tumbling and inflation soaring.”

Hammond, in turn, inspired Nick Macpherson, former permanent secretary to the Treasury, to state today that he was “right to question the political connections of some of the hedge funds with a financial interest in no deal”, adding, They are shorting the [pound] and the country, with the British people the main loser.”

Will they get away with it? That remains to be seen, but while I still hope that the majority of the British establishment, which supports staying in the EU, will somehow prevail, I can see a number of bleak futures, reinforcing the notion of the new English civil war I mention in the title of this article. I’ve always believed that MPs, who support staying in the EU by a clear majority — should decisively shut down Brexit themselves, and then hold a General Election the day after, secure that have done the right thing for the country, but that seems as unlikely as ever, and, instead, the drive seems to be for a second referendum, following a withdrawal agreement approved by MPs, in which the British people can actually decide what kind of Brexit they want — or don’t want.

But for hardcore Brexiteers, any second referendum will be perceived as a betrayal, and in fact, over the last three years, the most rabid enthusiasts for Brexit seem to have decided that they want a no-deal Brexit (even though that wasn’t what anyone was asked to vote for, and also wasn’t the intention of most of those pushing for Brexit at the time), and are increasingly prepared to suffer financially as a result.

None of them seem to have realised that the most cynical of Brexit’s backers have been profiting all along, while others have joined in since, having realised that Brexit offers an unprecedented opportunity to smash the state and profit from the unfettered plunder of whatever remains of Britain’s assets.

In the bleakest scenario — a no-deal Brexit — I can even imagine that, however disastrous the collapse of the British economy will be, the most rabid Brexiteers will still blame the EU, or immigrants, or both, and may well — having so enthusiastically shown their contempt for judges and for any MPs or journalists, or be frank, anyone else who disagrees with them — embrace a far-right dictatorship as the ideal way forward.

These are genuine fears of mine, but while I’m happy to be reassured by anyone who disagrees with my fears, I can say confidently that, if the far-right drift continues in the UK, those who disagree will not capitulate without a fight.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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34 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, in which I look at the increasing violence of Brexiteers’ rhetoric regarding the UK leaving the EU, and my fears that the ideological civil war that Brexit has represented since the EU referendum in June 2016 is being stirred up by the disgraceful Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings into a much more physical manifestation of a civil war, even though Johnson – and his backers – are only really interested in a no-deal Brexit as a way of making huge amounts of money.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Ghias Aljundi wrote:

    The worst two buggers in this picture

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, Ghias. How are we still stuck with them? This is what I wrote about them nearly two months ago:

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Ghias Aljundi wrote:

    Andy, and now a woman accused Boris of sexual harassment but still many people would vote for him

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s the Trump effect, Ghias. In the eyes of his supporters, he can do no wrong. That said, I don’t think it’s going well for him outside his base. The scandal with Jennifer Arcuri was already looking bad, and if, following up on Charlotte Edwardes’s allegations, other women he’s behaved with inappropriately start coming forward, he’ll just end up toxic to the large number of people who are still actually in the political centre. Or so we can hope, at least. He really is a shameful specimen of a human being.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, thoughtful piece. I’m not persuaded that Cummings really did come up with “Taking back control.” I heard that it was originated by Showbiz hypnotist Paul McKenna for the Farage campaign.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David. I spent some time writing it, so I’m glad it’s ended up thoughtful.
    As for Cummings, it wouldn’t surprise me if he stole it from someone else and then claimed it as his own. Typical underhand behaviour.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Sometimes, I wish for instant karma

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Ah yes, Jan, if only …

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Have you seen this by Dominic Grieve. He believes Boris, Farage and Cummings are deliberately aiming to incite violence and civil unrest among the mentally unstable who are more at risk of susceptibility to incendiary provocation due to the fact that in legal terms, Johnson can’t orchestrate a no-deal Brexit on 31st Oct, without breaking parliamentary law, unless he invokes emergency powers to prevent the riots that he and his ilk are aiming to invoke. Grieve instead is determined to take him to court again, to stop him by all means, if this is the case.
    Ps the only riot I’ve seen so far has been in Manchester, people were booing Boris and throwing stuff at him, to which he seemed to smile and be quite content, paradoxically.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    I saw the references to the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act in the Guardian, Lilia, where Dominic Grieve “said he could see no other possible way Downing Street could comply with the law and deliver Brexit on time.” So as the Guardian put it, citing Keir Starmer, “Boris Johnson is whipping up fears of rioting and deaths on the streets if Brexit is not delivered by 31 October so that he can try to invoke emergency powers and avoid extending the UK’s EU membership beyond that date.”

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    James Adler wrote:

    Jo Cox’s assassination is still one of the deepest modern horrors to me. Showing the barbarity of the far right in the UK & US alike —

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I agree, James, and yet her memory is now being used and besmirched by cynical politicians like Johnson, and the media (predominantly white) doesn’t want to acknowledge the full extent of the threat posed by the white far-right.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Well they appeared to be throwing stuff at him and protesting outside the conference in Manchester regardless of how much sleep Tory party members were getting inside however they were calling for the Tories to get out of number 10 rather than get the UK out of the EU. My concern really is that they might have some agenda to get troops on the streets regardless, however I don’t know how this will work with the police. Meanwhile some MPs are now planning to impeach Boris, so see what happens. Going to sleep now, will read the Guardian article tomoro. Ps agree with everything you’ve summarised in your article, well put. Asta la vista until tomorrow ✌

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, the madness will no doubt continue today, and all week, and for the whole of October, Lilia – and who knows when it will all finally be resolved, but I share your fears about where Johnson and Cummings and the ERG and Farage and his bitter Brexit Party are driving all this. It’s hard to see how the hardcore Brexiteers can be reasoned with, given their belligerent attitude, reinforced through their own echo chambers for the last three years. They behave as though we’re at war, but it’s a war they themselves have invented.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Andy ps forgot to mention did you read up on how Boris used Arcuri as a front to invite far-right Breitbart speakers from the US to speaking tours in the UK and used the start-up funds using tax-payers money he supposedly got for her to pay them using her as a blond hair and pretty face as part of white-suprematist far-right UK/US events as host. Dastardly he truly is.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Mohammed Zakaria wrote:

    Lilia yes I posted a twitter feed on my page! That white supremacist islamophobe milo yanopoulis was key speaker at Accuri’s event!

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Yes he used her and UK tax payers’ money to bring far-right extremists to the UK that’s more serious than just getting his leg over or cheating on his wife, tho’ that’s also bad, but personally I think his participation alongside Farage of working with the far-right from around the world as part of a policy of incitement to far-right racist terrorism is far more serious in legal terms.. as well as a threat to national security.. ✌

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Lilia and Mohammed, for mentioning that, as Johnson’s involvement in wooing representatives of the US far-right and bringing them to the UK needs exposing as widely as possible:

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s a good column by Nick Cohen from yesterday’s Observer – ‘It’s open season for political thugs and the Tories gave them the pass’:

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    And the Guardian’s latest editorial on Johnson is also good – ‘The Guardian view on Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans: all humbug’:

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Another good column in the Guardian today, by sociologist and political economist Will Davies, Professor in Political Economy at Goldsmiths – ‘The Tories have lost their ideology. Now they are merely the party of resentment’:

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, excellent piece though Davies fails to discuss the actual rising economic inequality bestowed even in the Blair years and the real economic miseries bestowed on assorted “sacrifice zones” like the mining communities that had started long before the greed of the “Big Bang” shifted our economy to get rich quick Ponzi schemes

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    And that, of course, David, as you note, is the failure of all our governments since Thatcher, including New Labour, providing an explanation of why so many Leave voters are so angry with the “Westminster elite” – but in turn we have to ask how and why they’ve so spectacularly failed to notice that the problem isn’t politics per se, but the neoliberalism embraced by the major parties, and on that point the media bears a huge responsibility for people’s amnesia.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, Well quite so. Blair’s enthusiasm for being a willing quisling to the US neocon project was appalling but equally disturbing was that wealth inequality rose ever year he was in office.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    I added to my comment while you were replying, David 😉 but yes, inequality has been on the rise for 40 years, and yet far too many of those affected are looking in the wrong place – blaming the EU for what, it ought to be crystal clear, is the corruption of their own governments. As with Trump, what’s both so absurd and so genuinely worrying is that so many of those impoverished by neoliberalism seem to think that old white establishment men drifting opportunistically to the far-right is going to be any kind of solution.
    Did they not notice that Nazi Germany was also a corporate enterprise? As Wikipedia describes the assessment of Adam Tooze, in his 2006 book ‘The Wages of Destruction: The Making and the Breaking of the Nazi Economy’, “The Nazi government developed a partnership with leading German business interests, who supported the goals of the regime and its war effort in exchange for advantageous contracts and subsidies as well as the suppression of the trade union movement.” In addition, “Cartels and monopolies were encouraged at the expense of small businesses, even though the Nazis had received considerable electoral support from small business owners.”

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Davies’ latest book looks interesting – ‘Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World.’ Here’s a ‘Long Read’ for the Guardian from two weeks ago – ‘Why can’t we agree on what’s true any more?’:

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    And finally, for now, Simon Jenkins’ most recent column, ‘I used to think Boris Johnson could get a Brexit deal. Not after last week’:

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    George Miles wrote:

    no, i think the main ideology of the conservative party is that the conservative party should be in power. and the ideology of BJ is that BJ should be world king, he only chose brexit to further his career

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    And what a truly breathtaking example of cynicism that is, George, appalling to those who see it for what it is, but apparently completely unseen by those who so desperately want to rally behind their would-be “world king.”

  31. Tom says...

    Meanwhile, back here there’s also talk about a “civil war”. Trump wants to arrest one of the key Democrats pushing the impeachment inquiry and have him executed as a traitor. Of course this will never happen and corporate media loves this nonsense because it means great ratings. It’s kind of like the racist alcoholic uncle who always shows up at family dinners and everyone just blows him off.

    What Trump and Johnson really want is a race war to finally turn the country all white again.

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Tom. Trump seems pretty rattled about it – but then narcissists really don’t like being undermined, do they?
    As for racism, Trump definitely wants a race war, but Boris Johnson’s only interested in himself (not that Trump isn’t, fundamentally, but, you know, he’s also very palpably a white supremacist), and for some reason Johnson seems to think that he’ll get away with a no-deal Brexit, even though it will be an almost unthinkable disaster.

  33. Tom says...

    Since the High Court said that Johnson suspending Parliament was illegal, can he be prosecuted?

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    I think, Tom, as with so much to do with the law, that it would be regarded as an erroneous conclusion rather than a deliberate attempt to break the law (even though that was what it was), in the same way that John Yoo is still a law professor at Berkeley because he was only expressing legal opinions in his “torture memos”, rather than deliberately trying to break the law (even though that was what he was in fact doing). The alarming thing here right now is that Johnson is fundamentally refusing to accept the court’s ruling, claiming that it was “political”, and threatening to introduce a vetting process for Supreme Court judges to make them more amenable to political pressure. That’s a slippery slope, of course …

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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