Today I was with well over 100,000 others marching to protest for a People’s Vote on the EU. Photo from ITN News website
As it becomes ever more clear that labeling the facts as Project Fear was a diversionary tactic, and businesses are assessing whether they can continue in the UK, people from across the UK gathered in central London, calling for a referendum on EU membership now we know more of the facts.
I have to admit, in order to get a referendum completed before Brexit Day (29 March 2019), parliament would have to move rather more snappily than it has on the first Brexit Bill – the EU Withdrawal Bill. But parliament can move quickly when it needs to, and there are other instances in history when it’s done so – and it looks as though this parliament has decided to move quickly on an upskirting bill. Moreover, whatever deal emerges needs to be pretty much finalised by the end of October, as other EU countries have to ratify it, and most of them need to put it before their own parliaments.
So if the public mood changes, and I think there are small shifts in it already, then parliament may find itself compelled to act. While the Leave / Remain percentages are fairly static, the “want referendum” numbers seem to be twice the “don’t want referendum” ones. I see Brexitometers from across the country which show a consistent message – the people don’t think Brexit is going well and want another say.
Brexitometer on Chippenham High Street, photo copyright Trevor Porter for the Gazette and Herald
There is a line of argument that we should just let parliament exert some muscle and stop the whole process. I think we’ve seen from the events at the end of the EU Withdrawal Bill – where some Tory backbenchers threatened to vote against the government but, in the end, few did – it’s unlikely that any backbone will be grown soon. While it’s perfectly possible for parliament to reassert sovereignty and simply stop the process, the reality is that a few million people are likely to feel very disenfranchised if parliament did that.
While it was still good-natured, today’s march was more determined and angrier than the one in March 2017. You only had to hear the boos as the march passed Downing Street, or the loudness in Parliament Square. People sense time is running out. But I think that parliament just stopping Brexit would cause riots – as I suspect Brexit itself might when people realise the economic cost. So, politically, I think it must go back to the people in order for there to be some validity to the decision and, yes, there’s a chance that the people will still vote to Leave.
The counter to that is to run a far stronger Remain campaign this time round – fight the campaign on hearts and not on economics or statistics. Counters need to be found for the “don’t talk down Britain” or “take back control”. We need to tell stories about the personal hardships, the opportunities that would be lost or severely weakened, the horrors of war that we have avoided for 70 years. I wrote before the last referendum that the statistical message had no cut-through. It won’t another time either.
Personally, I am angry. Angry that, in a failed attempt to unite the Conservative party over Europe, the government has, for three years now, been completely overshadowed by the EU issue, which has left little room to do anything else. Funding of the NHS, our schools, social services, defence, police, transport links – all take second place to this massive, expensive diversion.
And, you know what, the other EU countries aren’t really taking any notice of Britain any more. They’re looking at political stability across Europe, issues about personal liberty and freedoms, the continuing immigration crisis, and trade deals. If any countries are causing them concern and making news right now, it’s Italy, Poland, Hungary and Germany. The greatest tragedy is that the UK could have been in there, helping the EU sort itself out and providing structure and stability. Instead we’ve undertaken the greatest navel gazing exercise in the world, and ended up a more divided, hate-filled society. We have lost so many opportunities, our international voice has been substantially diminished, our reputation tarnished – all because the Tories couldn’t agree on one issue and couldn’t keep the country out of it.