On Saturday afternoon, London saw its largest march since the anti-Iraq war demonstration of 2003. An estimated 700,000 people marched through central London in bright sunshine and high dudgeon to Parliament Square. There, before the Houses of Parliament, their call for a “People’s Vote” on Brexit was endorsed by second-rank politicians from all parties apart from the Green Party which, having only one member of Parliament, sent a full delegation. Then everyone went home in time for tea.
This is Britain, after all. No one got hurt, and everyone was friendly. The police were smiling as they strolled among the families, clocking up overtime with each step. Outrage expressed itself not by pussy hats, but by homemade signs expressing the fatal British taste for puns: “Brexit Wrexit,” “I only have Ayes for EU” and, of course, “I love EU and EU loves me.” The protesters were so respectable that the person who made a sign equating Brexit with the turd emoji placed the sign in a trash can once it had done its democratic duty.
“We demand a People’s Vote on Brexit,” read the banners and stickers. “I want a say on Brexit.”
The problem is, the people have already voted on Brexit. In June 2016, the British voted 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the European Union. Everyone who could be bothered had their say. The turnout was high, 72.2 percent; higher, in fact, than the 68.7 percent turnout for the 2017 election, which was supposed to procedurally confirm the non-binding referendum of 2016. In England, where the referendum turnout was 73 percent, the vote was 54.4 percent in favor of leaving.
Yet all the People’s Vote marchers I spoke to believed that the 2016 vote had been closer than this. They all averred that “the people” had not been fully informed at the time, even though David Cameron’s government had sent every household in the country a leaflet explaining that Brexit meant leaving the EU, its customs union, and its regulatory system. Some of them insisted that Brexit was “illegal,” though no one could say why.
They feel Brexit is wrong and bad — a wrong against Europe’s postwar reconstruction, and a bad move for the British economy. Being essentially pleasant people, they know that things that are wrong and bad are generally illegal in Britain. So they suspect that something illegal is going on here.
They also see the pro-Brexit English as bigots. Some of them definitely are. If you rely on the BBC for your news, then all of them are. Leave Means Leave, the pro-Brexit counter-campaign to the People’s Vote, is not above pandering to bigotry either. They had set up a large screen next to the route, playing a short attack ad with a jaunty tune and a commonsensical voiceover. As I was chatting to June, Spencer, and Keith, I kept hearing the commonsensical voice alleging that the People’s Vote was a front for George Soros.
Soros’ Open Society Foundation has given a little more than £200,000 combined to two of the “grassroots” groups involved in People’s Vote. Julian Dunkerton, a co-founder of the clothing line Superdry, has given £1 million. But Dunkerton’s name doesn’t have the dog-whistling appeal of Soros’s name. Though, to be fair, Dunkerton is British, while Soros is not. If you don’t want to be called a string-pulling neoliberal globalist, don’t back only one side if you want to restage somebody else’s referendum.
That said, many Brexiteers are not bigots. They have assessed their national interest, and voted accordingly. They feel that it is beneath their dignity to be told what to do by an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels. They know perfectly well that the British economy has grown twice as fast as the Eurozone every year since 2008. They are broadly tolerant of immigration—much more than the French or Germans—but they can see that massive immigration is overloading transportation, hospitals and schools, raising housing costs and social tensions, and breaking up communities.
Now, I backed Brexit, and still do. But I’m with June, Spencer, and Keith when it comes to the political mechanisms of Brexit, and I share their suspicion that the people running Britain would have their hands full running a school fair. When David Cameron decided to pose the most important political question since 1945, he should have made it the central issue of a general election. That would have framed Brexit in a national framework, and it would have given the election’s outcome the force of law. But Cameron’s mistake was one element of a larger misjudgment. He expected that “Remain” would win, and thought a referendum would be a good way of permanently shutting up the Euroskeptics in the Conservative party.
When “Leave” won. Cameron jumped ship in the worst display of public fecklessness from a man of upper-class background since the cowardice of Ivor Claire, the spineless soldier who abandons his troops in Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen. Theresa May came in, tried to pose Brexit within the framework of a general election, but squandered her parliamentary majority in 2017. Since then, she has got nowhere in negotiations with the EU, not least because the EU doesn’t want Britain to get anywhere without the EU.
I’m also with June, Spencer, and Keith when it comes to the exit from negotiations. If there’s a Brexit treaty between Britain and the EU, the people should get a vote on it. And as that vote will be a moratorium on the government that achieved it, that vote should be a general election.
Unfortunately, a deal is getting less and less likely. The People’s Vote prophesies a no-deal apocalypse on Brexit Day, March 19, 2019, and are using that prospect to push for a second referendum. But it looks as if both Britain and the EU are trying to avoid a “No-Deal” disaster, in which transport and economic links between Britain and the Continent break down, causing riots, power cuts, and panic-buying of imports like French cheese, Italian wine, and German porn.
Earlier this week, Theresa May hinted that she was open to thinking about extending the “implementation period” that begins in March 2019 and runs to the end of 2020. The EU’s leadership are making similar noises. As there is nothing to implement, and probably not enough time between now and March to make a deal, it’s likely that after March, Brexit will enter the equivalent of extra time in a soccer match.
So I’m not with June, Spencer, and Keith and the People’s Vote. The 2016 referendum was well-informed and its result was clear. The 2017 election put Brexit onto the parliamentary calendar, even if it hobbled Theresa May with a minority government. The very name “People’s Vote” implies that the real people didn’t vote in 2016 and 2017, and that the only vote that counts is the one for your side.
But the real people did vote; lots of them. That fact isn’t changed because the country is now divided, the negotiations are a disaster, and the prime minister is useless. The whole shambolic business is staggering onwards. Sooner or later, either Britain will leave the EU, or it will re-enter a limited customs’ union after an internal crisis in the Eurozone has forced the EU to scale back its neo-Roman ambitions.
Sooner or later, there will be a general election, either before or after a deal is made. And, possibly, after Brexit is done, the British will congratulate themselves on having got through the whole ghastly business without becoming one of those second-rate places which keeps using referendums to give false endorsements to random changes of direction.
The people have already spoken, and in 2016, not enough of them endorsed today’s slogan, “Bollocks to Brexit.” So, move along, People’s Vote.