‘Heightening fear through raising the spectre of the IRA is unacceptable,” Sam Gyimah tweeted, in response to Chris Patten’s warning that Brexit he doesnt “want to go back to the days when people were being shot and maimed”. Vince Cable dismissed “Project Terror”. David Lammy said that “history shows us appeasement only emboldens the Republican movement”. Nor was the condemnation restricted to politicians. Others laid in too. Jane Merrick, the political commentator, got to the heart of the criticism when she described Patten’s words as a “threat”.
As most of our readers will have worked out by now, none of this happened when, last March, Lord Patten raised the prospect of violence returning to Northern Ireland in the event of Brexit. There was scarcely a cheep of protest from prominent Remain and Soft Brexit supporters. Compare this to the buckets of ordure emptied yesterday over the head of Chris Grayling, who warned yesterday that cancelling or delaying Brexit could provide an electoral boost for the Far Right. We have adapted the remarks from Lammy, Cable and Gyimah about Grayling’s words to make the point, substituting “the Republican Movement” or “the IRA” for “the Far Right”.
What did Grayling actually say? As follows: “We risk a break with the British tradition of moderate, mainstream politics that goes back to the Restoration in 1660. MPs need to remember that Britain, its people and its traditions are the mother of Parliaments. We ignore that and the will of the people at our peril.” The Daily Mail added that he ‘stopped short of predicting riots if Brexit is weakened or reversed. But he added: “People should not underestimate this. We would see a different tone in our politics. A less tolerant society, a more nationalistic nation. It will open the door to extremist populist political forces in this country of the kind we see in other countries in Europe.”
So, unlike Patten, Grayling steered clear of suggesting that people might be “shot and maimed”: indeed, he was careful to avoid raising the prospect even of riots. But he was excoriated none the less when Patten was not.
Now you may object that Grayling did raise the possibility of violence by pointing back towards the English Civil War. Or say that he evidently can’t complain about his words being publicised: that was clearly the intention of speaking them. If the row has made more people aware of them than would otherwise be the case, then – he might think – so much the better. You could add that Patten, as a former Northern Ireland Minister, knows what he’s talking about, and that Grayling hasn’t got a clue (though two recent Northern Ireland Secretaries, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers, voted Leave).
If you did, so be it: these are points of view. But however mistaken we might think them, here at ConservativeHome, at least they don’t muddle two different things. If two men are in a car, and the passenger says to the driver: “Look out! You’re going to crash,” he is shouting out not a “threat”, in Merrick’s word, but a warning. He is not trying to grab the steering wheel himself, and career the car at speed into a motorway barrier. In that sense, Grayling and Patten are on the same page or, if you like, in the same seat. They may both be prescient – or plain wrong. Or one may be and not the other. However, there is no instrinsic difference between what either did.
So why the silence over Patten and the noise over Grayling? Some will say is that all it shows is the usual Remainer double standard (though they should ask themselves whether they thought or said at the time that Patten was acting irresponsibly).
We think there is a bit more to it than that. For most Westminster politicians and political journalists, Northern Ireland is a long way away. SW1 is where many of them work. The “yellow jacket” protesters have abused some of the latter as well as some of the former. The natural reaction is to rally round. It follows that the intimidation of, say, Anna Soubry (who was threatened) gained coverage and condemnation that the intimidation of Nigel Farage (who was chased in and out of a Glasgow pub by Far Left and SNP activists five years go, before being escorted to safety in a police van) did not.
This is the effect of distance as well as, if you like, of bias – in the sense that more Westminster journalists and politicians will identify with Soubry, who is one of the club, than with Farage. Interestingly, Soubry – in yesterday condemning Grayling, as one would expect – expressly wrote off the yellow-clad thugs as a sign of anything bigger. “The 15 yobs who have been roaming outside Parliament do not represent anyone but themselves, she tweeted. “It’s shameful to validate them in this way. Right-wing extremists have always existed.” This suggests that she thinks there is no substantial electoral threat to the Conservatives from their right.
We are not so sure. The AfD, Orban, Bolsonaro, Trump’s toppling of the old Republican order in America – all are signs of a worldwide populist revolt from the right or, one might say just as accurately, from parts of the working as well as the middle class.
Remainers blame Brexit for heightening tensions in British politics. But these anti-establishment upheavals elsewhere have nothing much to do with Britain’s referendum decision to leave the EU, if anything. Indeed, the political effect of the vote in Britain to date has been the opposite – collapsing UKIP, helping to halt the march of the SNP in Scotland and containing anti-establishment passions within an established party, the Conservatives (the most established party in the world, if longevity is the measure). First past the post, a mainstream centre-right party and a rooted national moderation have contained populist reactions.
Today’s papers are full of claims that the Speaker will this week change Commons standing orders in order to stop or soften Brexit. We shall see. But if anything of the kind happens, and it follows that some voters conclude that an elite – what we call, more accurately, an Ascendancy – has manipulated Parliamentary procedure to frustrate a popular vote, can we really be sure that Grayling is wrong? ConservativeHome apologises for thus uttering a “threat”. But together with what is still, we suspect, a majority in the Commons, we believe that the gamble of shoving up two fingers at the referendum result is one that MPs would be unwise to take.