As thousands march against Brexit, Reuben Bard-Rosenberg takes a look at the politics behind the protest
“It’s fantastic to see so many European flags,” Alastair Campbell said, as he kicked off Saturday’s large anti-Brexit rally in Parliament Square, “but the flag I really care about is the British flag”. It was, he said, for the good of Britain that the result of the referendum needed to be reversed.
There were indeed tonnes of EU flags: people waving them, or wearing them in the form of hats and t-shirts. It is said that those who designed the clunky Article 50 process had done so on the assumption that it would never be used. To this, we might add that those who designed the EU flag did so without due consideration for the aesthetic price that would need to be paid by those protesting the result of a vote to leave.
Don’t mention the EU
Given that Parliament Square was covered in EU flags, the institution itself was strangely absent from the speeches. The brilliance of the Common Agricultural Policy, the fine political leadership of Jean-Claude Juncker, and the excellent constitutional balance struck by the Lisbon Treaty were all neglected by those who addressed the assembled crowd of smartly-dressed urbanites. Instead, as Alistair Campbell made clear, the focus was firmly on Britain.
It was very much bread and butter stuff. In a message recorded for the demonstration, actor Patrick Stewart explained that whilst he himself wasn’t an economist, all reports by economists had shown that the effect of leaving would be negative. Labour MEP Seb Dance spoke in a similar vein, telling the crowd that “May won’t get a good deal” and that their job was to ensure “the full costs of Brexit were understood”. “The really dangerous people in this country”, he said, “are the hardcore ideologues”.
Those leading the campaign are clearly quite serious in their desire to reverse the result of last June’s vote. The strategy now is to push for a second referendum once the exit deal is hammered out (the astute observer will note a certain tactical flexibility amongst pro-EU campaigners regarding the relative merits of referenda and parliamentary democracy).
To this end, the leadership of the campaign are clearly committed to a tight, pragmatic campaign based upon stressing the economic risks of exit and recapturing the British flag. Using language more typically associated with Tory euroscepticism, the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron attacked “the deal being stitched up in Brussels” to take Britain out of Europe.
The crowd itself was lukewarm in its enthusiasm for much of what was said from the stage. A rare moment of visible excitement came when joint Green Party leader Jonathan Bartley took to the stage and, unlike most speakers, focused uncompromisingly upon the question of free movement. “You'll hear about tax, about trade and about the single market, but I want to talk to you about people: EU citizens”, he said. “I am still proud to stand for free movement”.
The level of response he got seemed to reveal something of a disconnect between those organising the march and at least a section of the crowd. Those attending were spread fairly evenly between the ages of 20 and 50 with a smattering of teenagers in attendance. The crowd seemed predominantly, but not exclusively, middle class. The most striking characteristic of the crowd I saw in Parliament Square was that it was almost exclusively white – to an extent not often seen on major demonstrations in London.
Amongst them were of course those who were keen to demonstrate their feelings of social, cultural and intellectual superiority which, it must be said, became a hallmark of much pro-Remain social media in the months leading up to the referendum. The person who turned up with a big flag which simply said ‘REASON’ seemed to fit this mould.
At the same time there was clearly a large section of people who are motivated first and foremost by liberal idealism, by the idea of transnational unity that the European Union appears on the surface to represent, and by genuine revulsion at the rise of the far right which many people regard as coterminous with Brexit.
No future in Brexit denial
Their priorities, it must be said, are unlikely to be well expressed by a leadership which is committed to fighting a very carefully triangulated campaign, invoking state of the national economy as though its benefits are spread equally, and pedalling enough Brownite soft patriotism to build a sort of grand coalition of responsible citizens.
The reality is that Brexit - having won the popular and the parliamentary vote - is happening. What we need now is a coalition of all people who are up for the long hard slog of re-popularising anti-racist sentiment, and changing the way in which people think about migration - rather than simply trying to hitch migrant rights onto the “sound economics” of single market membership.
We must be honest about the kind of challenge we face. But we should also look back with some pride at the way in which the left has successfully intervened to challenge popular majoritarian bigotries in ways that were initially unimaginable. Let's get prepared to unite and fight!
Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.