A million marched in London on 19 October – rebels, traitors, plotters, wreckers, metropolitan elitists, citizens of nowhere, enemies of the people, foes of democracy demanding a people’s vote on an issue, Brexit, that will shape Britain for decades to come.
They came from across the country – men and women from every generation, class and creed – to join one of the biggest protests in British history, and the biggest demonstration of support for the European ideal ever staged anywhere.
They were not political activists or extremists, the people forming that great tide stretching from Park Lane to Parliament Square. Most would never have dreamed of marching before Brexit. They were moderate, tolerant, compassionate, law-abiding, peace-loving citizens embodying the virtues for which Britain was until recently admired. Citizens who understand that we live in a dangerous and complex age requiring international collaboration, and who see through the hollow promises, simplistic slogans and false narratives of the demagogues.
But for the unfortunate heckling of Jacob Rees-Mogg by a handful of protesters at the end, there was no ugliness. The police presence was redundant. The homemade placards evinced thoughtfulness, humour, self-awareness, erudition, sorrow, anguish, pain: “Stop me boring my kids!” “I want my continent back”; “We are people too”; “Quite cross”; “Brexit: voting to take back what we never lost in order to lose everything we currently have”; “Do not go gentle into this great fight. Rage, rage against the lying of the right”; “Why sometimes I believe six impossible things before Brexit.”
This was the silent majority finding its voice, the centre turning radical, the slow-to-anger rising up against the destruction of their values and their country.
They were marching against the lies and deceptions of a minority government led by a con man, against the politics of hatred and division, the shameless inflammation of prejudices and exploitation of grievances, with which the Brexiteers have manipulated an ill-informed electorate.
They were marching against the government’s many abuses of a parliament whose sovereignty the Brexit zealots profess to revere: the prorogation, the threats, the expulsions, the withholding of information, the procedural trickery, the public denunciations of honourable MPs and of an institution holding the executive to account.
They were marching against the vilification of those perceived to be resisting the “will of the people” – judges, civil servants, business leaders, experts, the 48 per cent, those who still dare to support the status quo for the past 46 predominantly peaceful and prosperous years of EU membership.
They were marching against the trashing of anyone with the temerity to suggest that 40 months on from a dubious referendum that produced only a narrow majority for quitting the European Union, with two Conservative prime ministers having spectacularly failed to deliver the fantasy bonanzas promised in that referendum, with Brexit’s immense social, economic and diplomatic costs now painfully apparent and with almost every opinion poll suggesting a change of heart, the country should be asked whether it still wants to proceed.
They were marching against the increasingly probable break-up of the UK, against the wrenching of Britain out of the biggest free market and most successful experiment in multinational co-operation that the world has known. And against our deliverance into the hands of a perfidious American president whose betrayal of the Kurds in Syria demonstrated his contempt for allies.
They were marching against an unelected prime minister’s disdain for the law, the truth and the constitution. Against the replacement of evidence-based policy-making by faith-based policy-making that willfully ignores the evidence. Against sycophantic newspapers owned by non-dom billionaires that set out to dupe, not inform. Against the leader of the opposition’s failure to oppose. Against the commandeering of the language of patriotism by those who are wrecking our country and who have zero interest in the well-being of those disgruntled blue-collar workers they claim to champion.
The marchers came because they could not stay silent in the face of such outrages. They came for the sake of their children and grandchildren, to encourage those brave MPs who are standing up for what is right, and to show Europe that Johnson does not speak for Britain.
They had few expectations. It seemed probable that by the day’s end Boris Johnson would have bludgeoned parliament into blindly approving his wretched deal – a deal for which his only (and thoroughly misleading) argument was “get Brexit done”. But the marchers received an unanticipated reward. Shortly after 3pm a mighty roar erupted as they learned that parliament had withheld its approval – a roar audible inside the Commons. That night Johnson was forced to ask the EU for an extension to Article 50.
As the New Statesman went to press it was impossible to predict whether the Prime Minister would still manage to ram his deal through an exhausted parliament this week, whether it would unravel as it was subjected to the closer examination he was desperate to avoid, or whether MPs would make their approval conditional on a customs union or even a confirmatory referendum.
But one thing is certain. The million centrists on that march, and millions more who share their views, will not forgive those who have visited such turmoil, such rancour, such destruction on this land. They will not forget. And they will not vote Conservative again. They would rather die in a ditch.
Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and a former foreign editor of the Times
This article appears in the 23 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state