March for a People’s Vote, 19th October 2019

The day-to-day of Brexit is well written up elsewhere. Maybe one day I’ll put a timeline up here. As a matter of record. After it’s all happened and we’re out, or in, and staying whichever way. But for now…

I’m on the march for a People’s Vote. It’s 19th October 2019.

I’ve not marched before. Hazel and I returned from Amsterdam 11pm on the 18th. 11am on Saturday 19th I’m on a train to Paddington. I walk across Hyde Park, and join the march at Hyde Park Corner. Some walkers resting. Banners and placards likewise. Looking down Park Lane: full of marchers as far as the eye can see. Looking east, along Piccadilly, likewise. A million? Maybe.

I head down to join them. Shuffling along. The pace reminds me of the last ½ mile of the London marathon, when you’re struggling along Constitution Hill, toward the Mall. Would we were so close to an ending. There may yet/will certainly be more political marathons before any level of sanity is achieved. As one placard has it: ‘I’m not leaving.’ Or as Steve Winwood sang, ‘keep on running’. Or another placard: ‘If you leave me now, you take away the biggest part of me…’ I hum that all the way back to the tube.

A batch of Labour cabinet members give short speeches. Keir Starmer the stand-out for clarity and apparent commitment. LibDems old and new. Ed Davey more punchy that usual. Jo Swinson gets her message across well. And others. David Lammy brilliant. Likewise Jess Phillips. The biggest cheers at the end for Dominic Grieve and Hilary Benn, fresh from the Commons debate, and the vote by 322 to 306 to withhold final approval for Johnson’s Brexit deal until the relevant legislation has been passed. And finally big cheers for the old warrior hero, Michael Heseltine. Hezza as lucid and passionate as ever.

More placards. ’Stop the coup.’ Yes, in a way, that’s what we’re facing. ‘Let us be heard.’ Not easy with so much of the press in Tory hands.

My favourite slogan before, and still my favourite: ‘If a democracy can’t change its mind it ceases to be a democracy.’

The marchers are a wonderful, worthy, uncomplicated bunch of ordinary folk. All ages, some serious, others chatting, having fun. A trumpet here, a rallying cry there. A single line of ‘Ode to joy’. Sudden unexplained surges of noise. Helicopters occasionally drowning everything out.

Talking of drowning. Rain starts on the Mall, continues as we head down toward the Cenotaph. Briefly heavy. But we walk on regardless.  Then big blue skies and dazzling sun. A big screen helps me keep up with the speeches. The crowd thins a little and I finally make it to Parliament Square.

A few placards are rather more direct: ‘Eurocrats not Brexit crap.’ Not quite sure we should be lauding Eurocrats, if we want to persuade waverers. ‘Bramm orth Bretmes,’ apparently (do I believe it?) a Cornish curse meaning ‘a fart to Brexit’.

Maybe my favourite: ‘Brexit is as shit as this sign.’ (On makeshift cardboard.)

Other favourites: ‘I’ve seen smarter cabinets at IKEA.’ Right on. ‘Only tectonic activity can take us out of Europe’. A simple geographical fact.

Yes, we are serious, but we have fun. Shouts of ‘Shame on you’ as Andrea Leadsom leaves the Commons, so I read. She reports she felt threatened. This is as I experience it a very unthreatening event. But the press of course pick up on her comments.

Blue berets with yellow stars around the edge are popular. A teddy bear atop a wooden pole. A labrador with a rag doll Boris in its mouth. ‘Honk if you want to remain.’ Not so easy on roads from which cars are excluded. A goose with a Euro flag in its beak: yes, I like that.  Some kind of vehicle moves slowly through the crowd, with a Boris mock-up in front, and a bigger puppet-master Dominic Cummings behind.

‘Hastings loves Europe since 1066.’ Really? But I support the sentiment.

And finally, ‘Plant molecular biologists against Brexit.’ As I would expect.

If I’d carried a placard … putting attempts at clever thoughts aside, I’d go with ‘keep on running’, or ‘I’m not leaving’. Keep it simple. Conserve energy.

We are in it for the long term.

Back to Europe

Should we sit back post-Brexit (if indeed it happens), as one-time Remainers, and accept our severance from Europe as permanent? Or do we make it clear that our aim will be to to rejoin – rejoin both EU and Europe. Get ‘back to Europe’.

Robert Peston (late of the BBC, now ITV’s political editor) spoke with his usual passion, lucidity and calm deliberation (a uniquely Pestonian combination) last Friday evening at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

He is very much in the Remain camp, but careful to understand both sides of the argument. But as an economist he is in no doubt about where Britain’s interest lies. Likewise over the role of the EU in guaranteeing long-term peace in Europe.

His one caveat, and a crucial one, relates to the divide in the country that Brexit has revealed and the last two years has exacerbated. How much deeper the divide, how much more bitter the recriminations in the country, if we don’t leave? Where might a hyper-charged political atmosphere lead – what damage to our institutions?

I understand that concern. But there is of course the other side. The anger and blame if we leave. But I’d suggest that maybe too many on the Remain side aren’t quite passionate enough – they’re not of the go to-the-wall mentality. Rather, shrug, and see what happens. Which is curious in a way because Remainers have a majority among the young and better educated, but it may just be that the capacity to be reasonable among the Remainers tones down their opposition. They aren’t quite angry enough.

Nor should we sideline the moral argument, highlighted by Macron’s statement that Brexit advocates were liars. ‘Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be alright, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home, are liars.’

Let’s say purveyors of half-truths and distortions. Without the fake stories, without the BBC’s equivocation, Leave would never have won. (Which isn’t to argue that elites and arrogance, wealth distribution and immigration weren’t the deeper concerns which drove the Brexit vote. These are the issues of and for our time. But Brexit is simply the wrong way to deal with them.)

Should we sit back, or on the fence, and allow Brexit to happen, without continuing to challenge at every step, before and after 29th March next year?

Saturday morning there was a Guardian story that Conservative MPS are talking to Labour MPs about winning their support for Theresa May-negotiated settlement with the EU. Takes me back to Peston. The outcome of a vote in parliament?  Another referendum on the final terms? He almost said a ‘Peoples’ Vote’ but checked himself. He put it at 40% likely – maybe 50%.

So … if, from next April on, we have a Customs Union, of sorts, and various other stop-gaps and cobbled-together elements. Do we sit back quietly? No, surely, we need a Back to Europe movement, and we need to be the ones arguing, shouting if need be, above the mess and the noise.