Three weeks ago, I doubt more than a handful of the thousands gathered in Parliament Square on Saturday afternoon had heard of Article 50. And yet now this dry bit of legislation, which begins an irreversible process of leaving the European Union, has become the Brexit nuclear button. The marchers waving EU flags had a simple message to MPs: don’t press it.
Financial and political jitters aside, so long as Article 50 remains unpressed, life carries on as usual. This was no more apparent than in London, where 12 per cent of the population are EU citizens, according to government data. Indeed, as the marchers streamed through Piccadilly, Polish builders held up messages of support, and van drivers honked their horns. The picture of globalisation was complete when a window in the Ritz hotel opened, and a couple swathed in bathrobes waved at the passing crowds.
Brandishing signs declaring “we are the 48 per cent”, the marchers themselves were from all over the UK. I spoke to a mother and son from Norwich, an island of Europhiles in a sea of scepticism. “I am an EU citizen,” Christina Raschka told me. “I have worked in the UK for 30 years. I am married to a UK citizen. It has a huge impact on my family.”
Her son, 16-year-old Jake Cornford, was too young to vote. “It is our futures that are being affected,” he said. “I don’t see why we were not allowed to vote in the first place.”
Two other marchers had come from Suffolk, which voted Leave. “It is important for our European partners to realise that triggering Article 50 at this point would be unconstitutional,” one of them, Steve Lovell said.
The other, Stewart Alsopp, said something that I would hear again and again: “We were all lied to, even if some of us didn’t believe the lies.”
Indeed, many of the signs bobbing along with the crowd attacked Leave campaigners. “Eton mess”, read one. Another simply said: “I loathe Gove.” Cut-out heads of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the Eurosceptic media mogul Rupert Murdoch were waved on bloodied spikes.
But such placards only served as a reminder that politicians are themselves struggling to contain the Pandora’s Box they have opened. In theory, a skilful Remain sympathiser could still grasp the Tory leadership, call a snap election and win on a platform of maintaining the status quo. Or MPs could get the chance to vote on a Brexit deal, and reject it. But this seems less and less likely every day.
With so much uncertainty, though, some marchers seemed to take hope simply from the feeling they were not alone. “It’s so nice to see friends,” a woman from Essex said. “This is the first march I’ve been on. I just want the other half of the country to know we feel strongly too.”