The Yellow Jackets Could Come to Brexit Britain

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- What started out as a typical demonstration against fuel taxes threatens to become the largest and most violent street protests in France since the late 1960s. Some might say this could never happen in Britain. I wouldn't be so sure.

The French, of course, have a long tradition of taking their grievances to the streets. There have been a dozen or so significant episodes of civil unrest since the major round of rioting in 2005. Tens of thousands of cars are burned every year. The current wave of demonstrations began with a Facebook grouping to protest a 7.6 euro cents per liter ($0.09) tax increase on diesel fuel, to help pay for President Emmanuel Macron's environmental agenda. Opposition to the tax tapped into widening discontent over living standards and with a president who often appears arrogant and detached.

Worse, his measures seemed designed to offend what many regard as France's beating heart -- its towns and villages. Hundreds of thousands of protesters, with support from both the far-left and the far-right, donned the high-visibility security vests that are the protesters' symbol; rioters joined them to devastating effect.

In Britain, popular discontent is generally expressed far less violently. Unpopular policies are tried in the media and through parliamentary questioning; those found wanting are subjected to a thorough tabloid beating. Most don't survive. Sometimes a minister has to be sacrificed to put things right. Every new poll is scrutinized for clues about the direction of public opinion. Overall, it's a pretty responsive democracy.

That's why the 2011 London riots, when police took four days to regain control of parts of the capital (there were smaller riots elsewhere), took everyone by surprise. Sociologists still debate the underlying causes of the violence, but much of the unrest was attributed to mindless criminality. A very British thing happened right after: Local residents mobilized an army of volunteers with bags and brushes to clean up the mess; they used the very social media platforms the looters had used.

That may explain why a gilets jaunes movement -- which have turned up in the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy, too -- couldn't appear in Britain. But what happens if traditional pathways for affecting change no longer work? What happens, say, if the political sphere is so unstable that there is no clear policy vision; if government not only ceases to be responsive but is no longer even coherent? Britain may be about to find out.

The 2016 Brexit vote, like the election of Macron and the protests against him now, represented a rejection of the established political order and a burbling dissatisfaction with the status quo. Macron, at least, is seeking to tackle the sclerosis in the French social model, where successive governments kept the social peace through increased spending that has become unaffordable. His changes may be too slow for the impatient French, his medicine too bitter and his manner overly imperious. But the risk to the U.K. government from Brexit is actually worse.

The arguments for leaving the European Union were substantial and debate-worthy; but it's fair to say that years of austerity, low productivity growth, declining or stagnating wages and rising inequality also made Europe a useful scapegoat. And yet the problems underlying the 2016 Brexit vote can barely get a government hearing, as the preparations and negotiations for withdrawal have become all-consuming. Meanwhile, Brexit divisions threaten to stoke populist anxieties with unpredictable consequences.

Macron, despite his missteps and flaws, at least told voters that the change he was going to bring would be painful at first. Contrast that with Prime Minister Theresa May's "Brexit means Brexit and we're going to make a success of it." May made promises to Brexiters that she couldn't keep, including total control of laws, money and borders; she promised Remain voters that access to EU markets would be maintained when that was not in her power.

It was only nearly two-and-a-half years after the vote, when she produced the agreement with the EU, that it was possible to say what Brexit means. And not even then; the future trading relationship is left to an ambiguously worded, non-binding 26-page political declaration. The result has been total opposition from almost all political sides, the parliamentary equivalent of threatened car-burning, and a heightened risk of leaving the EU with no deal at all.

Britain has weak government, perhaps now more than ever given the divisions over Brexit. Both parties are hopelessly divided. Parliament is stuck. It's pretty clear it will reject the deal on Dec. 11, but not clear what comes next.

Imagine that Brexit means not a negotiated agreement, however odious, but leaving without a deal. That is what some Brexiters are now fervently advocating. It is the default under Article 50 of the EU Treaty: If there is no agreement on another course of action, Britain will leave on March 29, 2019 without a deal. The consequences of a Thelma-and-Louise Brexit are nontrivial; they were comprehensively set out in the Economist recently.

My guess is that if that happens and Britain's departure brings serious and immediate economic consequences, we won't see the Victorian stoicism of the stiff upper lip. Someone will begin passing out high-visibility vests or another symbol of defiance. It may not be immediate, but chaos, loss, uncertainty and disruption will breed palpable anger. It may be Leave-voting forces in hard-up areas, those who have the most to lose from a no-deal Brexit, who protest in favor of no deal; as in France's riots, causes can be co-opted and arguments conflated. There is a lot of anger in the U.K. Stabbings and violet crime have been on the rise. So has opioid use. Britain is a hugely successful global economy, but that masks the fact that it also houses some of northern Europe's poorest regions.

The much-discussed Brexit cliff edge is not just the economic disorder of leaving without arrangements to keep trade and traffic flowing freely; it's the threat to social order that this invites and the further damage that does to already low public trust in the institutions of democracy. If you think it can't happen here, think again.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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