Richard North, 01/12/2018  

There was a time when we would have been pleased to see a headline declaring: "Eight Cabinet ministers hold secret talks about 'pivoting' to Norway if PM's Brexit deal is voted down", even if the EU has ruled out further talks.

Unfortunately, though, it is the Telegraph which is running the story and its idea of the Norway option is the plan "being championed by Nick Boles, a former Tory minister". In other words, it is not the Norway option at all. 

It is perhaps also significant that, while those who have become familiar with the option now label it the "Efta/EEA option", while the newspapers still call it by its earlier, less accurate title. But then most of the media is so far behind curve that it's hardly worth bothering with them – the Telegraph advising us that, "under the Norway scenario the UK would retain access to the Single Market after Brexit but be forced to accept continued free movement".

Sadly, that is also the view of the prime minister, who thereby claims that it would not deliver what people voted for in the EU referendum. And, with that, she has refused once again to consider it – not that there is any value in her so doing for the moment. We have to play out the May plan to the bitter end, before we can even start to think of something else.

All we can take from this, therefore, is fresh evidence of the unending capability of the political classes – from top to bottom – to mess up a good idea, or to fail comprehensively even to understand it.

If I hadn't already remarked on it numerous times, I might now be tempted to write a blogpost on the intellectual poverty of our politicians, perhaps spurred on by a comment from Stephen Kinnock who argued that the Telegraph's James Rothwell had "extensively researched" the Efta/EEA option.

Yet, this is the journalist who writes of Norway that it "is not an EU member state but pays millions into the European budget each year and follows EU regulations - without having a say in their drafting - in exchange for market access".

Thus revealed is the level of sheer, pig ignorance we're getting from a leading national newspaper, only for the man responsible to be cited as an authority by an MP. That is a reflection of how far down the rabbit hole we have gone, although I have long observed that perhaps the only people left in the world who believe what they read in the papers are politicians.

As for Rothwell, I rather unkindly observed that his attempts to instruct us on the intricacies of Efta/EEA membership was rather like watching a two-year-old gravely instruct his mummy on how to change a nappy – in practical terms a complete waste of time, but pure comedy gold.

The problem though, is the players in such dramas are so bottled up in their own little bubbles, and so isolated from the real world, that they have no idea how awful they are. 

As long as the politicians and media can indulge themselves in their never-ending ritual of mutual grooming – with the clapping seals in the background – they never need to step outside their cosy isolation and confront their critics. We simply do not exist, having acquired the same patina of invisibility that is conferred upon elephants when they take up residence in diverse rooms.

One journalist and author who is clearly in his own bubble – divorced from the consequences of his own rhetoric – is Will Black who took it upon himself to declare on Twitter yesterday that: "For many people, stopping Brexit will be the UK's biggest achievement since defeating the Nazis", claiming: "We are closer to stopping Brexit than we were to defeating Hitler in 1944".

In this case, the infelicitous use of language and the immoderate assertions brought from me the response: "If you actually get close to stopping Brexit (not that you will), you will find you have a bigger battle on your hands than the nation had with Hitler. You will spark a civil war, the likes of which will rip the country apart".

This is a view that can be found elsewhere but, nevertheless, my post sparked the nearest thing I've been to a "Twitter storm". My response was to publish a short thread, explaining my concerns about the possibilities of war. There are, I noted, many levels of war, from the full-blooded heavy metal type to the low-grade insurrection amounting to chronic civil disobedience and occasional outbreaks of violence.

The latter can be a variation of the "four block war", a phenomenon noted in Iraq where, in one city block there was peace and normality with shoppers in the streets, while four blocks away, there was a raging gunfight. Moving on from total war, conflict can be a highly localised event, shifting from place to place with bewildering rapidity.

Not infrequently, the cause is the breakdown of the social compact. And in this country where we have been largely demilitarised and do not have ready access to high volumes of firearms, we are more likely to see low-grade conflict. However, it can escalate, especially if people develop IED-making skills. Even at a low-level, conflict can still be dangerous.

A crucial point about such conflict is that it does not require large numbers to pursue it. At the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, it was estimated that active members of the Provisional IRA in Belfast numbered only hundreds. But once the social compact fractures, there is created Mao's "fish in the sea" environment where anti-state activists, with the tacit support of their communities, can operate with impunity.

Furthermore, a conflict may start small, with only sporadic violence – indistinguishable from background civil disorder. I noted in my book, Ministry of Defeat, that it took the British Army occupying Southern Iraq in 2003 nearly six months to realise it had an insurgency on its hands, even in the face of sustained attacks.

But what fuels the disorder is over-reaction by the state or neglect of justified grievances – or both. These can easily inflame matters and trigger escalation. With a high-density population of 60 million in the UK, it would not be easy to regain control.

What experience has also shown is that, even in an unpractised population, insurgency skills - such as bomb-making – can be quickly acquired. Information is readily available on the internet if you know where to look, and cannot be suppressed. Materials are commercially available and bomb-placers can range from children to old people. There is no real physical defence against the determined insurgent who has nothing to lose.

For its defences, therefore, society (and the state) relies on violent activity being regarded as the unacceptable exception. As long as the government is regarded as legitimate and there is strong public support for the security services, people will cooperate in efforts to root out violence. But once you take away the legitimacy and erode the support, you have your "war".

That is why it is never untoward to warn about civil war. We are always closer than most people think, with society relying on a skein of consent which is fragile and capable of being broken. People who dismiss the prospect out of hand have clearly never studied history and yet, there were those on the Twitter thread who chose to see in the warnings an overt threat – which is simply not there except in their imaginations.

Already, public authorities have expressed concern about the possible breakdown of law and order in the event of a "no deal" Brexit, but such is the fragile state of our nation, it is no great stretch to ruminate over the possibility of a violent backlash, should a government try to take us back into the EU, without due process.

A "perfect storm" scenario might arise should the nation be forced into a "no deal" scenario, triggering civil unrest, whence a panicked government might seek re-entry to the EU. Isolated food riots could spread out of control and rip into something far bigger and potentially far more disruptive.

It also goes without saying that prominent political activists in the "remain" camp would be obvious targets for mob violence. With the Army thin on the ground and the police heavily stretched, they would be hard-put to protect everyone. It could get very ugly.

On the bright side though, if there is one thing on which Mrs May has been totally consistent, it is in her determination to see Brexit through to the (bitter) end. That what she has negotiated may not feel too much like Brexit, but the path she is currently taking leads directly to a "no deal" outcome. By the end of March, we expect to be out of the EU.

The fact that there are many people disconcerted by this possibility is a given. It is equally a given that we have a fractured nation and that nothing, at present, is having anything that could be described as a healing effect. And I would not be alone in my suspicions that the situation could get worse. 

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