As part of our regular “Remember their Audience” series, we examine why it is that the Conservatives have taken to talking up the prospect of riots if brexit is delayed, even though they are highly unlikely to happen.
The background: The latest deadline for leaving the EU is almost upon us, but for numerous reasons connected to the creation of a rebel alliance that now looks highly unlikely to be met. The Conservative government, however, remains dedicated to the deadline regardless.
The claim: “In this country, we never had the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) or the LA riots in 1992. Now they have a model — gilets jaunes — they have encrypted phones to co-ordinate it, and it only takes a couple of nasty populist frontmen to inspire people.”
So said a Government Minister to the Times. He or she added:
“If we have a referendum with 30 million people who vote, and we vote to Remain by 66 per cent, that’s ten million people who are unhappy. Even if 99 per cent of them shrug it off, that’s still 100,000 really angry people who will write to their MP and not let it go. It doesn’t take much and soon you have tens of thousands of people on the street.”
Government never talks up civil unrest, but talk of violent outbursts at delaying or cancelling brexit has grown lately, so what’s going on?
Who they are not talking to: (Anyone Who Read Yellowhammer or Understands Riots)
As usual in this series, I now take the opportunity to remind you that many things in politics are misunderstood because most of us think we are the audience when in fact we rarely are.
Last month Yellowhammer was (partially) published, making clear that civil unrest was likely if “no deal” brexit happened. It also warned of things like food, medicine and fuel shortages and workplace closures – things likely to trigger violence regardless of the politics.
Anyone who knows this, and understands the demographic and geographic layout of the leave/remain division will also know the talking up of riots for a delay – even after no rioting happened last time – is unlikely to be well founded. So these people are not the audience.
So who are they talking to: (The Afraid, and maybe Violent Leavers)
The risk of “no deal” violence is a serious threat to the Conservatives. It will make many people wary of that policy when they switch on to politics – potentially at election time. Talking up violence the other way might sway some of these people to not be swayed by it.
This is a classic “it’s a wash” tactic – disarming a negative about one’s own position or side by making it a negative for all sides and thus inevitable – diminishing motivation against it. We see this all the time. Accusations of inflammatory language by the PM, for example, are countered by examples of inflammatory language by opponents. In this case, there might also be a hope that some only see the government’s warnings of violence. So those afraid by potential rioting are having their motivation to avoid violence played on.
There is also a potential but perhaps peripheral audience in those who might riot too.
By appearing to promote or understand the cause for brexit-delay rioting, the authorities may also hope to diminish fear of consequence as a motivation among potential rioters, because some may interpret this to mean they won’t be so harshly dealt with. That would increase the chance of rioting, though as a marginal effect it seems unlikely it would manifest in riots rather than individual crimes. It would also be unlikely before the event, making little difference to whether the delay happens.
Reasurrance as a Response
This writer would like to suggest (without accusation that the Government is trying to trigger riots), that the response to this should not be anger or to emphasise worse rioting if “no deal” happens.
Instead, emphasise three things:
- That rioting is very rare for real reasons that still apply
- That delaying a thing triggers no force of impact changes (like closing of workplaces) that create proven riot situations
- That the police these days monitor dangerous groups and arrest rioters in big numbers post-riot
That should both reassure people and strengthen the fear of consequence – mitigating the worst of the messaging.