Uncharted waters: Brexit, a ‘people’s vote’ and the race against time

Danielle Miler/Staff

“Oh, you go to Berkeley, so you would know about protests, right?” I was asked by a man in Wenceslas Square, Prague, the city center where ringing keys wrung Communism dry in ‘89’s Velvet Revolution.

“We know Berkeley,” a Canadian couple told me in Vienna. “Your school founded the free speech movement.”

“Berkeley,” a Brit quipped in Cambridge, “isn’t that one of the best unis in the world? You protest a lot over there, don’t you?”

As I study and travel abroad, for better or for worse, Berkeley continues to come up in conversation as a city known for its spirit of assembly. Berkeley’s character — so bold, brazen, energized and newsworthy — serves as a poster child for the “power of the people” around the world.

So, when the People’s Vote campaign in the United Kingdom scheduled a youth-driven, peaceful protest in Westminster on Oct. 20, 2018, over the terms of Brexit negotiations under Theresa May’s conservative government, I knew I wanted to investigate. It wouldn’t be “Berkeley” of me to ignore an opportunity to learn more about civil society in a new place — especially when the demonstration was organized by young people and focused on an issue of such historic gravity.

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The London Tube is normally reserved in character. While my journey from Russell Square is always quiet — Londoners opt for reading the free Evening Standard newspaper over mingling with strangers — the day of the march was a vastly different affair. The ride to Hyde Park Corner was electrified by chatter, people from one end of the train car bonding with those on the other as political allies. Their protest signs, “All I want for Christmas is EU,” or “Living, Working, Trading, Studying, Integrating, Remain. Love EU,” were nestled under their arms and floating in a sea of deep blue and gold: the colors of the European Union. EU-starred berets and European Union flags (draped over demonstrators’ shoulders like capes) seemed to be the attire of choice.brexit_daniellemiller_staff1

The “People’s Vote” march was the largest in a series of anti-Brexit marches that have taken place over the past two years (this one with almost 700,000 attendees, according to estimates by event organizers). It was created to push for a second referendum on the final Brexit deal that Prime Minister Theresa May will negotiate with her European counterparts. (Assuming, of course, that a deal is reached, since “No Deal” remains a very real possibility). The People’s Vote campaign, supported by cross-party grassroots organizations, hopes to secure a chance for Brits to decide whether they want a soft exit, hard exit or no exit at all. With an Article 50 extension, this referendum could be possible, according to Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, former British representative to the EU and contributing author of Article 50 itself.

From speaking with demonstrators at the march and around London, my sense is that the People’s Vote campaign is fueled in large part by the grievances many Remain voters have over how the initial referendum was managed. Those concerns revolve around the belief that the June 2016 vote — in which 48 percent of UK voters chose “Remain” versus the 52 percent “Leave” — was never entirely the will of the people because the referendum never made clear to voters what they were voting for in the first place.

In the lead-up to the referendum, there were campaigns from all ends of the political spectrum striving to define the abstract notion of “Brexit” to the average voter. Prime Minister David Cameron’s conservative government passed out its infamous leaflets £9 million worth of taxpayer money to every household prior to the vote, explaining why voters should choose Remain. Reasons to remain, the pamphlet described, centered around access to the single market and its ambition for “four freedoms”: the free movement of goods, capital, services and people. From other sides, namely the Leave campaign spearheaded by boisterous personalities and Eurosceptics the Boris Johnsons, the Nigel Farages, the Jacob Rees-Moggs of politics voters were bombarded with a slew of false promises. There were the pipe dreams: that Brexit would help win Britain back for the “Brits” and stem immigration. There were the arguments for cutting Brussels’ red tape as a way to regain national sovereignty taken away by supranational institutions. And there were the straight-up lies: the promise of domestic reforms, such as boosting National Health Service, or NHS, funding by millions, with money supposedly saved from leaving the European Union.

But when it came time to vote, British voters were asked to reduce their thoughts to a single referendum question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Their options were “Remain a member of the European Union” or “Leave the European Union.” That was it. No nuance, little context, certainly no blueprint for what Brexit would look like in practical implementation.

In the end, a sign I saw from the People’s Vote march summed up much of the ambiguity that surrounded the 2016 referendum since the day David Cameron announced it. “Democracy doesn’t work if we don’t know what we’re voting for,” the sign cried out.

protest in LondonStill, it is not enough to merely protest the state of dishonest politics. A dilemma must be addressed: What is the best way to ensure that the conclusion from 2016 to leave the EU still captures the will of the people two years — and a rapidly disintegrating “Brexit means Brexit” negotiation process — later? And how should indication of shifting public sentiment —captured by recent polls and by a man’s protest sign declaring, “Reformed Brexiteer: I want a chance to Vote Again!!!”— be addressed in a fashion most conducive to the democratic process? Calling for a second referendum that could, potentially, undermine the results of the first creates a dangerous precedent in which the legitimacy of British voting procedure falls into jeopardy. A slippery slope.

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It would be difficult to overstate the degree of division and buzz that the topic of Brexit causes in everyday politics and media reporting here. There are still many contemporaneous societal woes, probably much more relevant to the daily lives of the British people, that need attention: the chronic underfunding and understaffing of the NHS, housing insecurity, homelessness, gentrification in London and the need to address the wealth gap between the North and South of England — to name a few. Yet, for London, a place that voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, Brexit remains a topic of constant conversation because it feels like an assault on everything London stands for. London is a diverse place. It’s an international city that welcomes the flow of people in and out of its orbit. It thrives on global connection, fluidity, and the exchange of ideas and goods. While it’s true that London is not representative of the rest of Britain, at the People’s March, it was not just Londoners who showed up to protest. People bussed and flew in from across the UK, including Northern Ireland, where the border remains of urbrexit_daniellemiller_staff3gent concern.

On my journey through the march, I encountered a curious amalgamation of interests. Musicians with “Musicians Need EU” signs banded together to protest the effect Brexit would have on the music industry, perhaps inspired by a recent string of high-profile musicians and recording studios that have spoken out against the “cultural jail” Brexit could create. A group of Polish workers showed up, waving the Polish flag, as representatives of the EU citizen workforce in the UK that could be driven out (at the expense of British businesses, especially food processing and hotel services) should Brexit negotiations fail to adequately protect the 2.3 million EU nationals who work in the UK. Many students and young children also came to the march, holding up signs that expressed their desire to study and travel without impediment throughout the EU.

There were a mixed group of politicians who came as the resistance. Most fervid, London Mayor Sadiq Khan spoke out: “It’s time for this vital issue to be taken out of the hands of politicians in Westminster. … It’s time to return it to the British people,” he said, echoing sentiments he expressed in a recent Guardian op-ed about the People’s Vote. In a show of cross-party solidarity, a diverse group of MPs also stepped onstage to criticize Brexit and demand a second vote. Two Tory MPs, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston, Labour’s Chuka Umunna, Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Vince Cable, and Caroline Lucas from the Green Party all showed their support as one. First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon declared by a broadcast video recording that the Scottish National Party would support a “People’s Vote,” while suggesting further desire for another Scottish independence vote in the future. In the 2016 referendum, Scotland voted 62 percent Remain and only 38 percent Leave.

Of course, as with many large, urban marches like this one, the “composition” critique emerges. Some have criticized the People’s Vote crowd for its middle-class status — filled with the kind of people who have the spare time to spend a whole Saturday afternoon, well, marching. Though the demonstrators may not have been wholly representative of Britain, they never claimed to be in the first place. The People’s Vote campaign was always primarily a vehicle for Remainers, many of whom opponents like to classify as “globalist elites,” despite their diversity. A self-proclaimed Corbynite I spoke to after the march joked about the march’s perceived social homogeneity: “Waitrose aisles were probably empty on Saturday.” (Waitrose is the epitome of “established middle-class” British supermarket). In modern Britain, class consciousness is still ever-present.

Even so, from my perspective, the fact that hundreds of thousands of people chose to descend on the streets, amplify their voice, fight for a different future other than the one Theresa May’s government has planned and resist the xenophobia, nationalism and lies that have fueled much of the Leave campaign’s rhetoric from the very beginning is a healthy thing for a democratic society. It’s important to have people who care. Democracies depend on citizens showing up for their seat at the table.

“What amazing turnout,” I mentioned to a British couple standing next to me as I looked around the massive, swelling crowd pouring through Westminster Bridge at the march’s conclusion. “It’s impressive,” they admitted. “But unfortunately, not as big as the crowd that attended Donald Trump’s inauguration. At least, according to Trump’s counting style.”

British politics may be a circus to witness, but that’s one thing — as an American, a Berkeleyan in the age of Donald Trump — that doesn’t feel so foreign to me.

Touché.

 

Contact Danielle Miller at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dmillercal.