Britain after Brexit-Day. We are still here.
As crowds were gathering outside Parliament on Friday to voice their discontent for being denied their ‘Independence Day’, the majority of the British public was largely confused – after all, Brexit Day was supposed to be 29 March, and if that got delayed, what happens next?
This confusion is undoubtedly shared by fellow Europeans across the continent who watch with bemusement as one of the key EU member states plunges itself deeper and deeper into a constitutional crisis with no end in sight. And while it may not look like it right now, in fact last week saw some momentous developments take place that may hold the key to the future of Brexit.
First off, the 23 March saw one of the biggest public mobilisations in British history – estimates vary between 1 and 2 million but I believe the key number to focus on is over 200 coaches that were booked to deliver hopeful protesters demanding a people’s vote into the already heaving capital. The composition of this demo, along with the previous one in October 2018 has been the subject of much derision in left circles that are still desperate to avoid taking Brexit heads on. It is true to say that the people’s vote demos represent a vaguely apolitical space – from the prevalence of home-made twee placards, to the absence of specific blocs familiar to us in the labour movement, to the now established practice for people going along with friends, family and/or pets, rather than organisations. However, this is due largely to the reluctance of the usual suspects – trade unions and the Labour party, along with the various left fringe organisations that would in normal circumstances be in charge of calling demonstrations in this country. Going back to the point about the coaches – that a substantial number of organised transport vehicles came together is especially significant when taken in the context of zero trade union involvement. Another Europe is Possible made a largely successful attempt at infusing the demonstration with some politics by organising a separate Left Bloc together with the Green party, the TSSA and a few left organisations. The fact that we held the only speakers’ rally at the start of the demo and we managed to provide a platform for a number of MPs on the Labour left, climate strike activists, NHS staff, rank and file trade unionists and migrants rights campaigners is to be celebrated in its own right but it points to an opportunity that has always been there for the Labour party, but an opportunity that is rapidly shrinking under the weight of public discontent.
Fast forward to so-called Brexit Day and a substantially smaller but still chillingly impressive crowd of people united in various reactionary demands gathered for their Brexit Betrayal demonstrations. There were at least 4 mobilisations called – one by Nigel Farage as the showpiece event to end his embarrassing Leave Means Leave march through the countryside; one by current UKIP leader and sponsored by none other than Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, better known by his man-of-the-people pseudonym Tommy Robinson; one by the fascist Democratic Football Lads Alliance; and oddly enough one by the UK yellow vests who were gathering near London Bridge station, seemingly to storm the Shard skyscraper. The dominant mood of the people’s vote demo may have been witty slogans and vague anti-Tory sentiment, but the crowds gathered to ‘defend’ Brexit were united by a politics with a harder edge. Politicians and journalists were denounced by speakers at both rallies, the multi-ethnic reality of the British working classes was all but erased and the UKIP-organised event in particular saw ugly Islamophobia and antisemitism rear its head, proving that Brexit can and does galvanise the most reactionary forces at play in current political life. Interestingly, Nigel Farage indicated he’s more than willing to go into another European Parliament election, as well as contest another referendum at home, while MPs who vote to support these options in Parliament were booed and called ‘traitors’ at every mention from the stage.
And as a background for these competing and contrasting expressions of popular will, one petition hosted on the official governmental website calling for the unilateral revocation of Article 50 has gathered the truly impressive over 6 million signatures in 10 days, making it both the most popular and the fastest growing petition since the function was originally launched. While critics say 6 million are about to discover petitions don’t work, it is clear for those of us following the parliamentary process that both the demo and the petition have given cover to pundits and MPs to not just raise the issue but discuss as a serious alternative in its own right to breaking the Brexit deadlock. In fact, in the indicative parliamentary votes Revoking A50 got 184 votes in favour, more than No Deal’s 160 ayes, and only 4 votes less than the Common Market 2.0, widely viewed as an acceptable compromise.
Indeed, the indicative votes held on 27 March were a culmination of a long process in which Parliament attempted to wrestle control out of the cabinet to be able to vote on their preferred options, rather than on the negotiated deal they had already rejected twice. Ironically, MPs then proceeded to use this hard won vote to reject, one by one, all the options available to them. A Customs Union proposal had the smallest margin of opposition, while an amendment to hold a ratification vote i.e. a people’s vote had the most votes in favour. While MPs were debating the options available, Theresa May has announced she is prepared to step down as a prime minister in return of her deal passing. The offer, however, wasn’t enticing enough to grant her wish and the officially negotiated deal fell on Friday, for the third time, although with a smaller majority this time. In the end, only 5 Labour MPs defied the whip and voted with the government, while influential voices from across the labour movement warned MPs that propping the Tory government should cost them their seats.
This Monday we wake up still citizens of the EU, and still awaiting another set of indicative votes. Bluffs have been called, leading ERG Tories have further compromised themselves as men of empty ambition and no principle, and the division in society shows no sign of healing, if the events in London are anything to go by. But importantly Theresa May’s deal looks like its reached its shelf life and we are seeing, week after week, a Parliament that struggles to operate without a constitution to guide its next steps. Have we reached the point where only another electoral event can save us from the impasse?
About the author:
Alena Ivanova is a Campaign Organiser for Another Europe is Possible. She's also a Labour Party activist and a migrants rights campaigner with Labour Campaign for Free Movement.