Britain Versus its Government

The irony of hopelessness. People's Vote March, London.

The UK campaign for a new referendum has gone from a faint call in the summer of 2016 to massive demonstrations outside Parliament. But can it really succeed?

Marching through Whitehall, the House of Commons looked more isolated than ever. Placards carried sentiments such as “I’ve seen smarter cabinets at IKEA” and “Bend over for Brexit”, yet there were few overtly political statements on display.

Another sign read “52% Pride and Prejudice, 48% Sense and Sensibility”. It’s almost as if the signs were written to make it onto Mock the Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats. It’s just common sense that the UK should stay in the EU and anyone who disagrees is an idiot.

However, the lack of politics had helped bring together a broad range of politicians: Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan, the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas and Tory Lord Michael Heseltine. This big tent approach may have been crucial to building a mass presence on the streets.

Brexit is not just a threat to the lifestyles of people who like to holiday in continental Europe. It’s a threat to the stability of British capitalism and the future of EU migrants living in the UK. Even still, this is far from a united coalition and success is not guaranteed.

Politics as conflict

The People’s Vote March is one of the few cases where the organisers’ estimate of attendees is being widely quoted in the Fleet Street press. Never before has a demonstration of such size and scale had so much mainstream media support.

I can’t remember the last time The Evening Standard gave front-page coverage to a protest, except to demonise student activists and downplay the turnout as much as possible. It’s even stranger that former Chancellor George Osborne is behind this step-change.

“One million (yeah, right) losers march yet again to overturn democracy,” tweeted Paul Joseph Watson, editor at InfoWars. “They march in support of big banks, big corporations and globalist scumbags who hate the general public.”

I’d hate to speculate about the identity of these “globalist scumbags”, but Hungarian financier George Soros, for whom the term globalist is often a racist reference point, certainly comes to mind. I wonder why that might be.

It wasn’t as surreal as when Watson called for the Queen to save Brexit. “The UK is now ruled by a dictatorship of MPs deliberately refusing to enact the will of the people,” Watson tweeted. “The Queen must use her power to overrule them and save democracy. Activate the Queen.”

If many of the people’s marchers are anti-political, so are their opponents who lambast them for trying to reverse a democratic vote. The majority voted for it and therefore any disagreement with the outcome is simply illegitimate.

The people have had their say, and everyone has to accept it, is the logic. Well, that’s not been the case in any political process in history. The history of democracy is a history of conflict, struggle and painful rows. Any system that blocks change by direct action is authoritarian.

Why not a new referendum?

People often talk as though a vote is a final say. After the 2015 general election delivered a slim Tory majority, many people on the left were told to “shut up” because that’s democracy. We lost and therefore we have to accept the result. But politics doesn’t work without division.

If the opposition gave up on its aims every time it was defeated, we would very rarely have a change of government. The UK’s political system is already far too ossified and slow to shift. This is partly why people voted Leave in droves. They wanted to hit the establishment with a sledgehammer.

European Union membership has always been ancillary to Brexit, really. Consider it more of an opening for bigger grievances, than a topic most Britons were invested in enough to actually leave. Hence, events like the People’s Vote March. This is how the country has always felt, too.

There are few arguments as fallacious as the suggestion that the 2016 referendum was the first and only vote that could ever be held on the UK’s membership of the EU. The phrase ‘second referendum’ itself is very misleading.

Not least because we’ve already had a second vote and it was in June 2016. The first referendum was actually in 1975 on the UK’s membership of the European Common Market. Much like the 2016 vote, the 1975 vote was about the ruling party trying to overcome its own internal conflicts.

The idea of a people’s vote might be best seen as an attempt to hasten an outcome: either we take the deal on the table, go for no deal or revoke Article 50. It could either complete or reverse Brexit. It’s not a given that Remain would win. It would at least bypass the morass of Parliament.

Yet the right-wing Brexiteers don’t want to run the risk of a new vote. They fear their victory was a fluke and they are quite happy to leave it up to the political class to decide the nation’s fate — so long as they don’t disagree with their decisions!

Turning the clocks back

The problem for people’s vote advocates is the absence of a strategy beyond march and build, while the media covers Brexit in all of its shambolic glory. This is a problem for any campaign trying to create and maintain a vibrant political movement.

The People’s Vote campaign has been waged to shift the balance in Parliament, but there’s no sign of change. The majority of Labour MPs — some 185 politicians in total — are sceptical of a new referendum and fear the consequences of such a move. Before the Independent Group split, there were 70 Labour MPs backing a new vote.

Fearful of the wrath of increasingly abusive Leavers, pro-Remain Tories are even more cautious. Even when Anna Soubry was a Conservative she voted down an amendment to hold such a vote. Most political parties with a broad social base face internal tension over Brexit.

One of the exceptions is the Scottish National Party (SNP), but they aren’t big enough to lead a British government and could only take power in a coalition. The same goes for the Liberal Democrats, which is a much smaller and less potent force in UK politics.

The House of Commons is an institution so decrepit that it can barely respond to the angry crowds massing outside its gates. This is the true genius of the British constitution: a partially representative government with no time for popular participation.

If we live in a democracy, it’s one without any accountability. The agenda is set in Parliament and we’re left watching it unfold on 24-hour news. Except when we march outside Parliament, we sometimes get to make an appearance in the news cycle.

This article is co-published with The Battleground. Photograph courtesy of Steve Lawson. Published under a Creative Commons license.