MPs must listen to 1m marchers and put Brexit to the people

Blog, 24.03.2019
David H.A. Hannay, miembro de la Cámara de los Lores y ex embajador británico (UE-ONU)

This was the third march, and by a considerable way the largest . Like the first two, it was totally peaceful and good humoured; it was a family occasion, with children and grandchildren cheerfully darting about and enjoying themselves. Not a pane of glass was broken, not a hint of violence anywhere. What a contrast it was with those “gilets jaunes” thuggish anarchists who, a mere week ago, trashed the Champs Elysées in Paris!

It was a singularly spontaneous occasion too, with groups of friends meeting up and sharing the spring sunshine, while making a serious point about the central political issue of the day. No formulaic banners and slogans, just home made, mainly humorous, comments. Of course a lot of hard work by People’s Vote and other organisations had gone into the arrangements. But they were tapping into a profoundly felt sentiment of outrage and despair at the way the government had been handling the Brexit negotiations, who now seemed poised to take us out of the European Union on the basis of a bad deal or perhaps with no deal at all. That same spontaneity is the only possible explanation for the huge success of the “Revoke Article 50“ petition – four million subscribers and rising.

Was this just a metropolitan elite, out of touch with their fellow countrymen? Well it certainly did not look like an elite. And there were plenty of marchers from every corner of Britain even if the majority obviously came from the London area. There was some latent anger, but mainly directed towards the Prime Minister’s xenophobic dog whistles about “citizens of nowhere“ and “jumping the queue”; and her astonishingly misjudged broadcast to the nation last Wednesday.

If you had asked, at any moment during the 47 years since this country signed up to join the European Communities, whether you could imagine a crowd a million strong marching through London waving European flags, you would have simply been laughed to scorn. In an odd sort of way it has taken the events of the last three years to bring to the surface the fact that an awful lot of our citizens do have views about being part of Europe, and they are not hostile or critical views, quite the contrary. As Dr Johnson said the imminence of execution does concentrate the mind considerably .

The reaction of ultra-Brexiters to the March and the petition is revealing too. All that sneering from people like Andrea Leadsom and John Redwood. Perhaps it is they who don’t “get it” and not the marchers. And how many people are turning out to march with Nigel Farage in time to reach London on 29 March, the exit day that was not to be?

What political conclusions can one draw from all this? Well, traditionally, British political decisions are not made on the streets but in Parliament and that will be true in the two weeks ahead of us on this occasion too. The marches may have had their roots in the great Chartist demonstrations of the 1840’s, but they are not an attempt to snatch control away from Parliament, rather to galvanise Parliament into exercising its role of controlling the executive and setting a course for the country.

If members of Parliament do now set the Brexit negotiations on a new course and seek a longer extension of Article 50 while we sort out what we collectively want and how we intend to get proper democratic endorsement for it, then they will not be on their own. It may well be that most people are heartily fed up with a process they were told in 2016 would be as simple as pie but which is still dragging on. But this impatience does not extend to acquiescing in its ending up in the wrong place.

It is frequently said that our politics is broken. But that is hardly the lesson to be drawn from the March and the petition, when millions of our citizens are peacefully exercising their right to express their profoundly political views on the burning issue of the day. The problem arises because the two main political parties are deeply divided on that issue. And that problem can only be solved in the short term if the government reaches out for support across party lines for a new course of action and stops repeating mantras about Brexit meaning Brexit and no deal being better than a bad deal.

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