Scrolling through Instagram, liking many of the photos my friends had posted, suddenly I paused. There, amongst pictures of football, parties, or pets, was one of the former EDL Leader Tommy Robinson, who I quickly learned had visited my local town of Scunthorpe to watch Luton Town play against Scunthorpe United.
Whilst at the football match, Robinson had posed with numerous people for photographs, with many more boasting about his presence. It should be understood that this was only a small group — and it was an even smaller group who shouted Anna Soubry is a Nazi at the MP in Westminster recently — but nevertheless we should not become deaf to the rising popularity of the far-right.
Tommy Robinson has more than 1 million followers on Facebook, and, helped by his recent court case, is quickly becoming a household name. After terrorist attacks or scandals such as the Child Abuse Scandal in Rotherham, Robinson’s videos, where he espouses his controversial and Islamophobic views, are shared thousands of times on Facebook. Whereas previously such a video would have been seen by a small minority of EDL sympathizers, now, because of social media, Robinson’s views are as readily known on any given topic as those of established politicians.
And yet as the rise of the far-right increases, on Saturday when the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling warned in the Daily Mail that frustrating Brexit would lead to an increase in far-right extremism, many reacted with shock and horror at him using such a dangerous threat to persuade MPs to back Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
However, Chris Grayling was correct. Frustrating Brexit will lead to an increase in far-right extremism, and many people turning away from an establishment still perceived to be deaf and mute to the concerns of voters. The problem is, Theresa May’s version of Brexit is not what those living in my local constituency of Gainsborough, where 62 per cent voted for Leave, believe Brexit to be.
Take Back control meant more than the technical victories May has won in her deal, such as changing the phrase ‘intention to end the backstop’, to a ‘determination’, or that any disputes between the UK and the EU will be solved by an arbitration panel, rather than the ECJ. Within the deal is the long shadow of European Court control, or how there still remains no legal clarification over concerns that the UK cannot leave the backstop independently, rather it has to be decided by the EU.
Concerns over the backstop and money being paid to the EU during the transition period could have been argued as being trivial and only short-term by a Government that had more to sell. But this is the main problem with May’s deal; there is little more to it. There is no further detail over the future trading relationship, fishing rights, or immigration; and therefore instead, the eyes of cautious MPs are attracted to the small print of the deal.
Downing Street have negotiated the Brexit deal on a false perception: that Brexit was fuelled by concerns over immigration and that nothing else matters. Instead, many polls find that sovereignty was judged more important. Tied within the Brexit vote was an outburst of anger over successive governments neglecting deindustrialized and coastal towns in England and Wales, along with a deep mistrust between politicians, established institutions, and the people. In addition, it was a protest vote against the recent decade of globalization, and rapid economic and social change — more than half of the country agree that:
‘Britain has changed in recent times beyond recognition and sometimes feels like a foreign country, and this makes me uncomfortable’.
Against a similar backdrop of economic and social revolution, along with a sense of alienation from the ruling elite, populists in 1890 threatened to break established politics in Washington and Europe. This outbreak of populist fervour was triggered by the 1873 Great Panic (economic crash), but held deeper roots with concerns that certain groups such as bankers were deliberately going against the interests of ‘ordinary people’. To abate populist electoral victories, President Roosevelt, triggered an ‘age of great reform’, breaking up the monopolies held in oil, steel, and banking, along with progressive welfare changes. The Liberals in Britain meanwhile, launched attacks on the wealthy with a new system of taxation in their ‘people’s budget’. To further prove that politicians were listening, democracy itself was revitalized, with swathes of the population, given the chance to vote.
By listening, the establishment secured its survival, and the populist wave of anger subsided. Comparatively, May’s Brexit deal shows no evidence of listening to concerns fuelling this latest populist rise. Rather it has, perhaps because of civil servants leading the negotiations instead of ‘political’ figures, become consumed by small-picture technicalities.
The Government through Brexit had an opportunity to end the control that the EU holds over our courts, economy and immigration system, but also to fundamentally transform the foundations of British society — to launch a Roosevelt-style reform package that would say to angry working- and middle-class voters ‘we are listening’, along with making Parliament less alienated from voters. If this had happened, I doubt many MPs would be voting against the deal, that could have been sold alongside such detailed proposals of reform. Instead, the language, when selling the deal, is that it promises stability, compared to other proposals which would create further chaos. Voters did not want the status quo or tepid changes, they wanted fundamental rethinks, and May has not delivered this.
In 1890 the establishment listened and was saved from populist anger. Today my local MP Edward Leigh, despite loud concerns in Gainsborough continuing over immigration and economic neglect and his own protestations about the backstop, has decided to vote for the deal after being awarded a post on the Privy Council. Rather than being ‘bought off’ by the Government, MPs on Tuesday night should learn from their predecessors in 1890 and say no to the Prime Minister’s deal, instead pushing for a greater programme of reform and a withdrawal agreement that helps meet concerns, particularly over sovereignty, which voters hold about the European Union. Otherwise, we should get used to more photos of people posing with Tommy Robinson appearing on our Instagram feeds.