Why we marched

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona says that the march for a People’s Vote was Britain at its best

20 October 2018 18:12

London calling: we want a People’s Vote. Except it wasn’t just London’s voice that roared from the capital today.

I saw marchers from Cardiff, Durham, Glasgow, Hull, South Shields; from the trade unions; from every class, creed and ethnicity. Ordinary people had converged at the meeting place in Park Lane from all over the country on 150 coaches.

It was Britain at its best, which is to say the whole of Britain. It was both raucous and civil, jubilant and determined. Good luck to those who try to explain away this carnival of activism as nothing more than the metropolitan elite shuffling along in a hipster sulk. It was no such thing.

The liberal elite was there, of course. What did you expect? But this was not its day. The march belonged not to famous politicians or celebrities but to the good-humoured members of the public – an estimated 600,000 at the time of writing – who had decided that enough was enough, and that a point had to be made.

And so many young people. If a People’s Vote is indeed held next year, it will be grass-roots movements like FFS and OFOC whom we should thank most warmly. Their generation has led the way, and supplied the raw energy of change.

DRUGSTORE CULTURE at the People's Vote march

Just as we like it at DRUGSTORE CULTURE, the march was serious – but not earnest. The air filled with the blasts of whistles, earthy slogans and the music of brass bands. The DIY signs were terrific: a big picture of Rick Astley with the legend ‘Never gonna give EU up’; ‘I am quite cross’; ‘Even Baldrick had a bloody plan’; ‘Rees-Mogg is an idiot’; and (pithy and correct) ‘They lied.’

If you had told me 25 years ago when I was writing as a Eurosceptic critic of the Maastricht Treaty that, on a sunny day in October 2018, I’d spend four hours marching through London in support of the EU… well, let’s just say I’d have been surprised.

But it never occurred to me in 1993 that Britain would ever seriously consider leaving Europe. The battle then was between reform of Brussels and more federalism. Leave the EU? Absurd.

Now, a quarter century on, the stakes are truly elemental. Britain is less than six months away from the official departure date of March 29, deal or no deal. In the past seven days, we have witnessed in pitiless detail the emptiness of the UK negotiating strategy and the pusillanimous panic of the Westminster class. We are stumbling towards the cliff’s edge like sleepwalkers, urged on by those who have nothing more to offer than the circular logic that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the last two years has been the zeal with which the champions of Leave have elevated the 2016 referendum result to quasi-mystical status. You would not think that the outcome had been so close (51.9 versus 48.1 per cent).

Nor would you guess from their fixation with this single vote – which they treat as if were a holy covenant or a written constitution – that our knowledge of Brexit has been transformed since then.

We were told that a deal would be struck with ease: not so. We were lied to about the £350 million a week dividend for the NHS. We have discovered that the official Leave campaign broke the law. There is growing evidence of Russian interference in the campaign. Worst of all, it is horribly clear that HMG’s Brexit strategy – if it deserves the name – is a hopeless mess and cannot possibly deliver the emancipatory new status for the UK that the Leavers promised (and still, amazingly, insist is within reach).

Many progressives remain stuck in a cultural cringe over Brexit. They fret that the feelings of Leavers are authentic, gritty, real and born of deep sentiment – while the Remain position is pallid, middle-class, self-serving and frangible. Well, to coin a phrase: bollocks to that.

There was nothing weak or passive-aggressive about today’s march. It was a vigorously patriotic assertion of British common sense; of the principle that, when the facts change, it is a good idea at least to consider changing one’s mind.

And – boy – have the facts changed. Which is to say, we have a lot more of them now than we did in 2016. That was what persuaded me to support the People’s Vote: the unanswerable sense that it was simply not good enough to accept the 2016 result as the final word on such a monumental change in Britain’s global identity, economic prospects and cultural prominence.

Democracy is iterative, or it is nothing. The ideologue’s dream of a telos, of a final destination, is the democrat’s nightmare. There is never a final vote, an absolute answer, an unimprovable decision. The glory of the universal franchise is the right to change course, to reconsider, to reflect. I understand those who say that the referendum two years ago was a people’s vote. What I don’t understand is their conclusion that there can be no others.

There is never a final vote, an absolute answer, an unimprovable decision.

As the crowds dispersed, the lions in Trafalgar Square loomed gravely over the scene. Who says that only Brexiters can have leonine hearts? Why should Leave claim a monopoly on boldness and those who want a say on the deal put up with being caricatured as ‘Remoaners’?

I do not know whether today’s march will yield success. What I do know is that a fresh referendum is now very much more likely than it was just three months ago: Theresa May’s weakness, Jeremy Corbyn’s paralysis and the negotiating impasse mean that we cannot be remotely sure that a deal will emerge that is sellable to Parliament. A general election? A new Tory leader? Maybe. But neither will solve the most basic problem, which is that there is no form of Brexit which delivers all the advantages and none of the responsibilities of EU membership: the preposterous outcome that so many of our political class still hanker after.

As Alastair Campbell said when he came into the DRUGSTORE CULTURE office for a vodcast last week, we owe it to the next generation to try. Even if we fail, at least – when we are scavenging for rats on the toxic streets of Putingrad (formerly London) – we shall be able to tell our grandchildren that we did out best when it mattered. Under an autumn sky, in what was still the greatest city on earth, in good spirits and with high hopes, we made our voice heard.