Brian Monteith: Reject the Gilet Jaunes approach and leave the EU peacefully

The "Yellow Vests" (Gilets Jaunes) movement in France originally started as a protest about planned fuel hikes but has morphed into a mass protest against President's policies and top-down style of governing. Picture: Valery HACHE / AFP/Getty Images.
The "Yellow Vests" (Gilets Jaunes) movement in France originally started as a protest about planned fuel hikes but has morphed into a mass protest against President's policies and top-down style of governing. Picture: Valery HACHE / AFP/Getty Images.
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Let us be under no illusions, no denial of reality. The next two weeks could be the most important for the future of our country in the 21st Century. Yes, that is a big claim, and it is only the beginning of 2019, but the vote on Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement and the response she gives a week today, as she must, is likely to determine the continued existence of the UK, the laws it operates under and how we behave as a society.

If the Prime Minister plays it badly, and in particular makes gets her response wrong the traditional acceptance of evolutionary social and economic change may perish in bonfires, demonstrations and mutual mistrust in all politicians and the democracy we cherish.

This may seem alarmist, but let me be plain – such are the forces manoeuvring to usurp our democracy that faith in our institutions may simply evaporate and be replaced with a far less pleasant belief that direct action is what will bring results.

I work internationally and spend my time more or less equally between Edinburgh, London, France and Ireland. I can see what is happening around me in the EU and in the UK – and in the last six months all of us, the whole continent, have begun a descent into mayhem and anarchy. From my own experience this new mood is not to be welcomed, nor is it especially the responsibility of Theresa May or her government, even though we might blame her if we rely for our outlook on reading only UK media sources.

The EU negotiators have sought from the outset to demonstrate to countries that might warm to the UK’s independence of thought that leaving or loosening ties with the EU should not be considered. I am thinking of Greece, Italy and even France. Yes, France!

Who can deny that France, unlike the UK or especially Scotland, is not at the heart of the EU? Yet I can attest that the mood in France is at breaking-point; it is played down by the British media, especially the broadcasters, but it is developing into an alarmingly chaotic and violent phase the likes of which has not been seen since 1968 when the fifth republic nearly fell and de Gaulle had ultimately to resign. The Gilet Jaunes or Yellow Vest protests against President Macron have not subsided, not been bought off – they are growing and arriving in many cities beyond Paris, such as Bordeaux and Rouen, in massive numbers and requiring tear gas and heavy handed responses that we would think shocking were they to happen here in the UK.

These demonstrations are multifaceted in their grievances – and are neither left-wing or right-wing, although they contain extremes from both wings – but they do raise what might be called populist concerns about double standards in the application or acceptance of open immigration, justice, public taxes and spending – or the growing gulf between those who do well out of the current system and those who lose by it.

Yet France is no longer alone, the Gilet Jaunes protest are now erupting in other countries, and there have been a few copy-cat instances in London – but there are now calls across the political spectrum for it to become a physical presence in UK political dialogue. I say to all readers this is not a road anyone should wish to go down or support unless they believe brute force trumps reason and debate.

I have driven through the barricades and intimidation that comes at the hands of such demonstrations and it is fearsome, alarming and costly.

This is what our parliamentarians are on the verge of ushering in across the UK. By refusing now to accept that the people voted, deal or no deal, in 2016 to leave the European Union – in the largest-ever UK demonstration of democratic instruction – and that in turn those same MPs agreed by a huge majority to invoke Article 50 to deliver that result, all faith in our democratic institutions is being lost. It is not difficult to imagine – with France as an example – of where we are heading.

When MPs call the electorate stupid, dumb, racist and bigoted for voting against the establishment they invite a response that may lack subtlety but is a direct reflection of their own abandonment of humility. The arrogance and hypocrisy of so many remainer MPs reeks like the rotting fish they would preserve through the EU’s fisheries discard policy. Changing parliamentary procedure is the latest debasement of the British playing by the rules.

Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement must be voted down – for even beyond the unecessary “backstop” it is worse than being a fully paid-up member of the EU – where the UK’s unity is not put at risk and we at least would have a modicum of influence about our future. How May then responds is crucial. As the law stands we must leave on 29 March and adopt the world-wide conventions of WTO rules. It is a deal with everyone and we can then move on to establish better outcomes. To instead repeatedly betray promises and overturn the referendum result will no doubt bring on mass demonstrations in the disguise of Gilet Jaunes, infiltrated I expect by anarchists looking for a fight, the extremes of left and right and a hydra-headed unaccountable extra-parliamentary leadership that cannot easily be tamed.

Our MPs must vote down the “deal” that is not a deal and then move to leave on 29 March. Anything less will see the repudiation of our democracy end peaceful change as we have known it.