As the cabinet goes to Chequers today to finalise Brexit plans, I’m inclined to reflect on the people’s vote march I attended on 23rd June.
For the first time in my memory I’ve felt politically apathetic over the last few months, thanks to current politics being, frankly, bloody dreadful. So when I heard about the people’s vote march, the democracy-eager elf somewhere deep inside me jumped at the idea, but my current-thinking self asked “what’s the point? MPs don’t care about anything but that nebulous will of the people.”
But I did go to the march, and it put the spark back into me. Once again I was pushing through crowd-packed streets, chanting my views, listening to inspiring speakers and, an important staple of my experience of protests, running around getting as many photos as possible. I’m particularly fond of climbing pieces of public property so that my short arse can get a decent shot. Essentially, I had fun, and was reminded of that very specific feeling of elation from standing in a crowd that cares.
To be less personal, it was fantastic that it was so huge. The protest attracted over 100,000 people, though I have also heard estimates of 500,000. How can I, or anyone, feel apathetic when that many people went all the way to London with flags and placards galore? That’s an effort that can’t be ignored, right?
Well, I will admit the immediate fallout of the march has been disappointing. There was great coverage, but the political response rather lacked. It’s frustrating to see Jeremy Corbyn still refusing any concessions on a people’s vote, which makes him sound disturbingly like Theresa May. It is especially jaw-dropping to me that he says it was a “significant minority” (my emphasis) of Labour voters who voted Leave in the same interview as “[a people’s vote] is not in our plans at all”. Labour are meant to be the opposition party, representing the majority of Labour voters (who voted Remain), yet he won’t listen to their concerns. No, he shouldn’t ignore that Leave minority, but there is definitely something ironic in this prioritisation of a “significant minority” when no one wants to listen to the very significant minority of original Remain voters.
These various minority/majority divisions played into the unique nature of the march. I’ve been to a fair few marches, protests, campaigns, but I’ve never seen one so diverse in its political leanings.
It was striking to see small children clutching balloons next to 90 year olds persisting forwards clutching a sign in Latin. Even more eye-brow raising was the sight of Labour banners not far from “Tories against Brexit”; meanwhile Lib Dems eagerly gave stickers to anyone who would take them.
It is important to note that this divide wasn’t equal; in her rally address, Anna Soubry felt the need to insist she wasn’t the only Tory at the protest, despite indications otherwise. But still, it was significant that people from all parties (except UKIP) were there. It must be the first time I’ve marched (knowingly) next to Tories, and though I am no closer to agreeing with their views, it is grounding to know that the anti-Brexit bubble is not an echo chamber.
It is not just a small group of Labour-voting, EU loving, young Remainers that want this vote, but all sorts of people feel Brexit negotiations should be monitored by democracy. The diversity of this march demonstrated the strength of its cause. It shows that Brexit is still as tendentious as ever, and that we can’t all unify behind this Will of the People™ which, lest we forget, was only a small majority. If a party in a general election won with such a small margin they would struggle to make drastic changes to policy, yet we’re going through the biggest political shift in centuries on 3.8%.
It would be disingenuous of me to deny that I want Brexit cancelled. I’m a staunch Remainer and always will be. But at this point, a second referendum is basic democracy. There are things we know now, and in fact still do not know, that we didn’t know when we voted in 2016. You wouldn’t continue with major surgery if the doctor suddenly turned round and said “actually we don’t have a transplant kidney for you”; you would reconsider your options.
“Should we leave the EU?” was a vague question. I have no problem with it being asked. I wouldn’t have said that before the referendum, but after the result, I concede that it revealed a rift in this country, a discontent in feeling that I can’t and do not wish to deny. I’m glad we have opened up the can of worms that really needs to be dealt with. But that doesn’t change the fact the question was largely meaningless – how do we leave the EU? How much are we willing to concede to do so? Single market? Customs union? Blah blah blah, all these other terms we’ve heard too much of lately.
We really, really don’t know what people voted for. There was scaremongering on all sides – Leavers reassuring we would not have to leave the single market, Remainers saying we would have to leave, other Leavers saying we should leave the single market... Who knows on what information most people voted. The fact the government is still bulldozing through this vague outline of a “democratic” request, and refusing to simply do a rain check, leaves me agog.
Another compelling argument is that, even if you think we do know what the general populace were aiming for, things have changed since 2016. One incredibly significant example is that Trump got elected, which is changing the face of trade agreements, international relations, environmental issues etc. These are very important factors to whether we want to leave a multi-nation union, and yet they aren’t being considered.
If a vote ended up cancelling Brexit, I’m pretty sure at least a significant minority would be happy (ironic tone). And if it amends Brexit into a better deal, cool. And if it pushes through a hard Brexit, well, *grits teeth*, will of the people.
This is why I think you, dear reader, should sign the petition for a people’s vote. The louder this voice, the harder it will be for the political leaders to ignore the changing will of the people. Sign and share it with as many people as you can, no matter your vote in Brexit or political party.
I am still too politically bitter to try to guarantee that aiming for a people’s vote will change anything, but I can guarantee that nothing will change if we don’t.
All pictures are my own. On 23rd June the #PeoplesVoteMarch walked from Pall mall to Parliament Square, concluding with a rally of various speakers including Anna Soubry, Caroline Lucas, David Lammy, Vince Cable, and many others. More details can be found at www.peoples-vote.uk