I’m not a reluctant marcher. If anything, I’m a demo veteran. But I’ve always felt a little bemused, slightly semi-detached on anti-Brexit demonstrations from the very first I attended at Tory Party Conference in 2016 in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, and the ascension of a triumphant Theresa May (‘New Iron Lady’ – Daily Mail).
My ambivalence puzzled me. I would look at my fellow marchers with curiosity. Who were there people? So white, so middle aged, so middle class? On the first big London march I tried to fit in better, donning a yellow top and a blue jacket and scarf, but I felt a bit daft.
Perhaps it was the proclamation on placards, and in snatches of conversation, that others felt their identity to be European? I didn’t feel particularly European. Except when I remembered, with a jolt, giving an interview to the distinguished Scottish journalist, Arnold Kemp, many years ago, declaring that I felt more connection to the institutions in Brussels which provided a lifeline to regions like mine, than I did to institutions in London which were hell-bent on the immiseration of the North. My identity, like those of the people around me on the march, was a mass of latency and contradiction. “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”
But finally, on Saturday 19th October, I think I came to understand the source of my unease with the anti-Brexit marches.
There was melancholy in the air this time. There were fewer home-made banners and placards. The Open Britain/People’s Vote campaign were thrusting free tee shirts and placards at people from boxes on street corners, like something from the end of a car boot sale. And yet here we were once more. I counted at least six coaches from Daniel Kawczynski’s Shrewsbury, a similar number from Nadim Zahawi’s Stratford constituency. The coaches from Aberystwyth set out at 5.00am, and the Scots had travelled overnight. The Met Police won’t issue estimates of numbers any more, but a German news helicopter overhead was able to calculate that an estimated 2.2 million marchers were on the streets.
And that is the problem. The vote in 2016 looks in retrospect like a very temporary episode of mass hysteria, in which ‘Brexit’, a magic word, an incantation summoning forth the solution to any problem, a healing of any ill, an excision of any source of grievance, radicalised and mobilised a narrow, but significant, majority at the ballot box. But it didn’t create a Brexit movement.
Nigel Farage can raise millions of dollars from his billionaire contacts, but he daren’t form a real political party with local branches and a collectively agreed policy platform. Too risky. The people just aren’t there in sufficient numbers. They’ve given up trying to organise official demonstrations. Their ‘Jarrow March’ was a desultory Ramblers outing.
As for the Tories, they’ve had a membership fillip from the middle class elements of UKIP rejoining the party, but it’s hardly a mass movement.
It can be too easy to blame the media for all our problems, but Brexit voters were an exotic new thing to an over-centralised press and broadcasting establishment, exciting and dangerous. They saw Trump rallies in rust belt towns screaming “LOCK HER UP!”, and wanted a bit of that. TV audiences were ‘cast’ to ensure the constant presence of red-faced intemperates, and viewers and readers were groomed to know what to say to any roving vox pop mic in Stoke or Grimsby. “We voted.” “It’s democracy.” Latterly, “Just get on with it”. But for all the heat and noise on Question Time, there is no significant Brexit mass membership movement.
Not so for the Remainers. The millions who march, the local groups and their Saturday ‘Mood Boards’ in hundreds of High Streets, the six million who signed a petition to Revoke when enraged by the arrogance of Theresa May. The numbers are demonstrably there for a huge movement.
What’s more, that nascent movement is stuffed full of the sort of people who run things, who know how to do things, who can make speeches, and organise events, and probably run councils, and stand for election.
But we have not become a movement. We know what we are against, and so we can cheer platform speakers who run the breadth from a former Defence Secretary who was the persecutor of the Women of Greenham Common, to Ken Livingstone’s young treasurer at the GLC. A Red/Green like Caroline Lucas can share a stage with people who were recently Tory ministers. But that leaves the question, what are we for?
Stopping Brexit, obviously.
But that’s no longer enough. Brexit is a consequence, not a cause of our broken politics. There’s no return to the status quo ante.
On Saturday I’d mostly marched close to the head of the demonstration, and managed to complete the distance before the rain came down. Like Superman, I took shelter in a red phone box, emerging from it in something like a cape (actually an orange plastic rain poncho). But as I looked through the panes of that box at my fellow marchers, some well-prepared for the weather, some drenched, I thought that what we really need is what isn’t yet there, and perhaps can’t, won’t be there.
We need a philosophy and agreed principles, potential leaders with a clear vision of the necessary direction of travel, and the organisational means to develop a practical programme, and to popularise it more widely. The existing parties in various ways don’t come close to that, and I’ve no illusions that the millions who march, or who support the anti-Brexit movement, all share the same outlook.
But it’s hard not to think that the ranks of PV marchers, XR activists, anti-fracking campaigners, and others will provide the seeds of an urgent new politics fit for the global challenges of this century.
How can we make it happen?