Almost a million people took part in the anti-Brexit/pro-second-referendum march on Saturday, coming to London from every region of the country, many of them from far in the north. These were not just the “elites,” those who—as the stereotype goes—can’t stand the idea of being out of the EU, like French wine, go on holidays in Spain, are fans of Italian opera and read the Guardian, but also very many young people, who feel betrayed by the small-minded choice of the wealthy bourgeoisie, newly obsessed with country, family and throne, as well as by the choice of the former working-class communities of the north, which were de-industrialized by Thatcher.
A colorful river of humanity flowed peacefully along the agreed-upon route: assembling in Park Lane, then marching along Piccadilly, down to Trafalgar Square, and finally coming together in front of Westminster. Here, in the seat of power, the politicians in charge seem determined to ignore the arguments for a second referendum, and are no longer willing to listen to the loud demands for popular sovereignty, a principle that was invoked as a convenient pretext on the occasion of the referendum vote, but is now being hypocritically sidelined when claimed by the protesters marching under the slogan Put it to the People—the slogan of the main organizing committee for the protests, the non-partisan People’s Vote, which simply asks for an opportunity for the people to vote once more on Brexit.
It was the largest manifestation of its kind so far, surpassing the total of 700,000 people (according to the organizers; the police, as usual, had a much lower estimate at 250,000) who came to the previous anti-Brexit march last October, and rivalling the largest demonstrations in the recent history of the country, which has not seen such numbers of people in the streets since 2003’s protests against the invasion of Iraq.
The current circumstances have brought together the voices of the 48% who voted Remain (one should not forget the narrow margin of victory for Leave in June 2016), a percentage that has likely risen by now, given that after almost three years of exhausting negotiations, the exit agreement negotiated by Theresa May’s team with their European counterparts, hundreds of pages long, seems to be good for nothing more than a doorstop. While the nightmarish specter of a no-deal Brexit next week has not yet been completely vanquished, it has been made far less likely by the latest fevered developments during the past week.
Amid signs full of witty wordplay, many of them quite hilarious, the starry blue EU flag could be seen everywhere, flown alongside the Union Jack, and also some St. George’s Crosses, the flag of England, flown at half-mast. It was, in effect, a march to preserve not one union, but two: if Britain exits the EU with no deal, the Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon intends to start the process for a second referendum on Scottish independence, bringing a risk of irreparable damage to the unity of the United Kingdom.
Together with Sturgeon, various Westminster notables also attended the march. Particularly remarkable was the participation of Corbyn’s moderate second-in-command, Tom Watson, who held a fiery speech on the stage at Westminster as the procession continued to flow into the square in front of Parliament. Watson is a kind of centrist counterweight to Corbyn, whose role is to calm the hysterical bouts of rebellion by some Labour MPs who hold liberal-Blairist views and who still think of Corbyn’s leadership as a bad dream.
Along with Watson, Tory defector and Remainer Anna Soubry (who has been the object of death threats in recent days, while the memory of the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox at the hands of a right-wing extremist is still all too fresh) was also present on the stage, together with others. Unsurprisingly, Corbyn was absent.
The great march in London undoubtedly sent a very powerful message, together with the five million signatures garnered in just a few days by an online petition on the government’s website for the withdrawal of the Article 50 notification. Jeff, a man in his sixties, came to the London march by bus from Gloucestershire with his wife, and supports revoking Article 50: “Something has to happen, just look around, the signs are everywhere. There are a lot of people who are angry about what’s going on.” According to him, those who voted for Leave were “the least productive of the population, the elderly and unskilled workers: here, however, is the engine of the country.” Jeff used to be a member of the Labour Party, but he is not anymore.
Sally, who came from Yorkshire together with a large group, blamed Cameron most of all: “It’s his fault that we are in this mess, we are Europeans and we should have a good relationship with our neighbors, the confusion that reigns in this country at the moment makes me unable to sleep at night. Now we know exactly what being inside or outside Europe means, so we have to vote again. Our guiding principles should be not only what’s better for trade, but also what is moral.”
For Nick, who is soon to be 25, “a second referendum wouldn’t worsen the existing divisions as much as a no-deal [Brexit] would. The north is poor, and Brexit would only worsen the situation.”
As it can always happen with demonstrations, no matter how extraordinary in size, it is possible that all their demands will remain a dead letter—at least while Theresa May is still in Downing Street. However, since the likelihood of her staying in charge for much longer, after the spectacular defeats she suffered last week, is itself rather small—as the voices from her party who want her to step down have returned in force, with all the figures angling from her job, such as Gove, Johnson, Rudd or Hunt, gearing up for battle—a second referendum, while unlikely, remains a possibility.
In particular, the prospects for a second referendum will get a significant boost if May has her Brexit agreement rejected in the House of Commons for a third time next week, an outcome that is so overwhelmingly likely that it has led the Prime Minister to cast doubt on whether there will be a vote on it at all.
In such a case, the EU would be set to grant a third extension before the UK’s exit, but it would also force the country to take part in the European elections in May. In the aftermath of the enormous, peaceful march, the colossal mess that is Brexit still remains, and a number of mutually contradictory outcomes are equally possible.