As the Labour leadership suggests that a second EU referendum would cause riots, Philosopher Helen De Cruz explains what sociologists and economists have to say about social unrest.

According to John McDonnell, MP🗳️, a vote on the deal would cause social unrest. We should go through with Brexit, not because it is a great idea, but because not doing so would embolden the far-right.

It would not be the first time that people would be asked to think again. For example, in 1992 Danish voters were asked to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. The YES campaign lost narrowly, 50.7% of voters on a turnout of 83.1% didn’t agree. The Maastricht Treaty is one of the two foundational treaties of the EU (the other one is the Treaty of Rome, 1957). The Maastricht Treaty required unanimous consent to come into effect. But in 1993, the Danes could vote again, after an amendment obtained some exemptions for Denmark. After their NO a year earlier, the Danes now said YES, with 56.7% of voters on a turnout of 86.5%. There was no breakdown of the social fabric in Denmark leading up, or following this second vote.

A Daily Mail headline, “Enemies of the People”, exemplifying the rhetoric following the EU Referendum.

The 2016 EU referendum was unprecedented not just in voter turnout or in the narrowness of the result, which we can see in other referendums such as the Turkish constitution referendum which granted Erdogan more powers and had a turnout of 85.43%. What was unusual was the rhetoric following the EU Referendum vote about the “will of the people”, “enemies of the people”, “liberal elites”, “citizens of nowhere”, etc. So given this rhetoric, and given the power of the tabloid media, it is quite possible that any attempt to undo or overturn the outcome would result in civil unrest.

Still, it is useful to look at what sociologists and economists have to say about social unrest. What causes it?


Probably the most comprehensive study on social unrest in Europe, studying the period 1919–2008 is this paper by Ponticelli and Voth. They conclude that, independent from economic downturns, austerity causes social unrest. They write:

“Using a panel data for 24 European countries covering the period 1919 to 2008, we show a clear link between the magnitude of expenditure cut-backs and increases social unrest. With every additional percentage point of GDP in spending cuts, the risk of unrest increases.”

Unsurprisingly, in the UK there is a clear link between the effects of austerity and voting for Brexit, as well as UKIP support, as shown by this comprehensive and detailed study by Thiemo Fetzer. Areas that were more affected by cuts in welfare showed higher support both for Brexit and UKIP. Indeed, had austerity not happened, then Leave would have lost by a firm margin.

By the government’s own calculations (DExEU), even the softest Brexit (which would preserve free movement and full access to the single market) will result in a loss in growth, and thus, a loss in tax revenue in many years following Brexit.

Unless the UK government is willing to increase national debt, further austerity cuts will be necessary to balance the books.

If this happens and we have austerity on steroids (no deal) or austerity plus (if the UK have a relatively good deal), then the public will no longer be able to vent their frustrations in a referendum. The result will be anger, discontent, and support for the far right.

Inability of the state to provide basic infrastructure

A second established reason, related to the first, for people to become restless is if the state fails to provide basic infrastructure. This paper compared the situation in Greece and Ireland, following the financial crisis in the early 2000s. In Greece there was social unrest, but not in Ireland. Although both countries are “similar in terms of their economic condition, cultural background, social composition, ideological profiling, and party system dynamics, among other factors“, they reacted quite differently. Why? The Irish state continued to be able to provide basic public goods and other state-related services, the Greek did not. As the authors write:

“We explain the Greek social unrest as an instance of what we term ‘political Luddism’, whereby groups of people turn massively, and at times violently, against a state that is considered to have stopped providing public goods.”

Click here!!

If freedom of movement is ended, even with a deal, then the projections for the NHS and social care are dire. There is even speculation in a mainstream newspaper that women would have to stay home from work to care for their elderly parents, unless EU care workers are given priority (if they still want to come, that is).

Rising food prices

French revolution women’s march.

Food price increases are another thing the public do not enjoy and understandably it has also led to social unrest. The food riots played a pivotal role during the French revolution. And comprehensive sociological and economic studies also clearly show, for instance, this one, that “for the period 1990–2011, food price increases have led to increases in social unrest”.

Food prices have already risen now, and in the event of no deal, would rise substantially. We might still enjoy our BLT sandwich, as Dominic Raab🗳️ assured us, but at what price? As this detailed governmental note says, 30% of our current food comes from the EU, and with Brexit, “it is inconceivable that Brexit will have no impact on EU food imports to the UK”.

The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790) was deeply worried that the British would be caught up in the same sort of public unrest that led to the French revolution. Well, Raab better be right about that BLT, or belatedly, the UK might experience severe social unrest.

BLT, anyone?

Is the risk of social unrest following a people’s vote worth it?

As we have now seen, any Brexit scenario is highly likely to lead to social unrest, even a relatively soft one. But indeed, a second referendum will probably embolden the far-right. This is not because second referendums have an intrinsic capacity to do this, but because the far-right wants Brexit, due to the decrease in regulations and worker’s rights it will entail.

Far-right white supremacists, such as Steve Bannon desire the disintegration of the EU, and Brexit could be a first step in this. It is worrisome that UK politicians like McDonnell would consider these sorts of anti-democratic forces to consider what the best course of action is.

As we have seen, appeasing right-wing extremists is a strategy that spectacularly backfired for the Conservative Party when they called the EU Referendum. It’s not going to work now, Brexit or no Brexit.🔷

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(This piece was originally published on Medium.)

(Cover: Photograph by Helen De Cruz - March for a People’s Vote, 2018.)