A People’s Vote on Brexit

A new popular movement is born – and it might just halt a Brexit disaster. Vanessa Baird dares to hope

Home-made placards mingled with union jacks, EU flags and Scottish saltires as the largest ever protest against Brexit took place in London this weekend.

Two years to the day since Britain voted (by a whisker) to leave the European Union, more than 100,000 people came from across the UK to demand a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal – which should, in theory, emerge in the next few months.

This protest was not only double the size of any previous ones but also more urgent and less polite: 'Bollocks to Brexit’, ‘We are the people too' and 'Brexit may be a big deal but not a done deal’, were recurring chants and slogans.

The politicians in charge cannot be trusted with final decision on Brexit, so let the people decide, was the basic message. ‘Write to your MP and demand a people’s vote on the final deal,’ the call to action. And if they don’t agree, suggested one speaker, sack them.

Portrait and political artist Kayamar: 'Why am I here? Because I think what's happening is slow suicide.' Photo: Vanessa Baird

The organizers (nine different groups including the cross-party Open Britain) stress this is not a re-run of the referendum. It’s about giving people the right to vote on the final deal – but with knowledge that they did not have in 2016.

That includes:

*the extent to which they were lied to during the referendum campaign, especially about the mythical ‘Brexit dividend’;

*that the US would elect Donald Trump – and the likely effect of ‘America First’ on any future bilateral trade deals;

*the threat posed to the Good Friday Peace Agreement and the border between Northern and Southern Ireland as a result of Brexit;

*realization that young people, many too young to vote in the referendum, are those whose future education and employment prospects will be most negatively impacted by Brexit.

Many of those young people will now have reached voting age. Some were on the People’s Vote rally in Parliament Square, impressively engaging in discussion with a group of hardcore pro-Brexit activists who had come from a far-Right march to heckle and bellow loudly.

Retired maths teacher and pro-People’s Vote marcher, Simon Buck said: ‘People my age who have pensions are probably alright. I feel guilty about that. I worry about the future of the younger ones post Brexit.’

Bollocks to Brexit: Taking the protest to outside Downing Street. Photo: Vanessa Baird

Reality hits

Not just the younger ones. Even before Brexit has happened its impacts are being felt, not least in the National Health Service, which has seen a 96 per cent drop in applications from EU nurses to join its depleted ranks.

Universities, such as Oxford Brookes, have seen enrollment of foreign students nose-dive this year and are facing savage job cuts as a result.

And last week, Airbus warned that, depending on the nature of the Britain’s Brexit deal with the EU, the French-German company might move its operations out of Britain at the cost of 14,000 UK jobs. German-owned BMW, which manufactures the Mini in Britain, is making similar noises.

Protester Ian Rowson, an economist, commented: ‘I appreciate that we had a vote and that it was a clear vote with a thin margin for leaving the EU but that result was driven by a prospectus very different from the one we see now. I think it would be a travesty of democracy for us not to have a final vote. If we don’t get that it would be an economic tragedy, but also a cultural and social tragedy.’

The social impacts of Brexit within Britain so far have been a deepening of social division, a rise in hate crime, xenophobia, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.

More than 100,000 people from all walks of life took part in the march demanding 'A People's Vote'. Photo: Vanessa Baird

Parliamentary ping-pong

Meanwhile, at Westminster, amendments to the Bill to leave the EU have ping-ponged between the House of Commons and the second chamber, the House of Lords. The latter recently made 15 amendments geared towards giving parliament a final say over the Brexit deal; protecting the Good Friday Agreement and ensuring that EU rights and protections enter UK statute law. There was a compromise on some of these amendments, but most were over-ruled by the Commons.

The failure of so many MPs from both of the major parties to vote for their consciences has done nothing to improve public trust in politicians, who are seen as putting narrow political survival and party interests above the good of the country.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s lacklustre opposition to the government on matters relating to Brexit has disappointed many. That disappointment was audible at Saturday’s protest – with loud and repeated chants of ‘Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?’ Meanwhile Theresa May (who, ironically campaigned for remain before the 2016 referendum) is held hostage by hard Brexiters in her cabinet and among the backbenchers.

It’s an extraordinary situation. The vast majority of parliamentarians voted to remain in the EU, but many of them represent constituencies that voted to leave. The politicians fear they will be deselected if they are seen to be trying to overturn ‘the will of the people’ – even if they themselves believe that the course of action chosen is one of massive, collective self-harm.

Gotta talk: A young People's Voter (left) engages in discussion with a pro-Brexit heckler who has come from another, much smaller, far-Right march. Photo: Vanessa Baird

Some though, have been outspoken from the start: Labour’s David Lammy and Chuka Umunna, Conservative Anna Soubry (accustomed by now to receiving death threats), Vince Cable for the Liberal Democrats and Green MP Caroline Lucas, are all prominent members of the movement for a People’s Vote.

‘I believe Brexit will be a disaster and it is our patriotic duty to do all we can to secure a people’s vote,’ said Lucas, who is giving up her role as party co-chair to devote more time to activism.

‘Brexit is not a done deal. It’s not inevitable.’

Lamy urged: ‘Don’t mourn. Demand. It will be hard fight, every month, every week, every day to make sure this happens. But we will prevail.’

Citing opinion polls that showed a shift in public opinion away from ‘leave’, human rights activist Peter Tatchell said: ‘Listen to the people. The people are sovereign. We need to take back control. We are the people and we must have a final say.’

While Anna Soubry stressed: ‘This is not just about the 48 per cent [who voted remain] but people who voted leave or remain. They are waking up to what Brexit really looks like – and they are worried. They were tricked and conned.’

The final word should probably be with former Blackadder comedian Tony Robinson: ‘I have a cunning plan: A people’s vote!’

The petition for a Peoples’ Vote is here.