Thursday 15/03/2019 should have been a momentous day in the UK’s long-running Brexit saga. The third of three days of key Parliamentary votes, on how the UK withdraws from the European Union, was meant to determine if the political deadlock in the House of Commons and the country could be overcome.
It did, but only because Members of Parliament from both government and opposition accepted that they would not reach agreement in time for the Article 50 deadline, 29th March 2019. Predictably, they voted (by a majority of 210) that the government should request of the European Union an extension to the deadline.
In plain language, Brexit would need to be delayed beyond the 29th March until some form of agreement could be reached. Agreement within the House of Commons (the biggest challenge), and between the UK and the EU.
College Green – a site of special Brexit interest
With Brexit dominating the agenda in the House of Commons for the last few weeks, it was time I went down to where the public was expressing its own views on the matter outside Parliament – College Green, next to Westminster Abbey. This formerly quiet little patch of grass on the west side of the Abbey is normally a little haven of tranquillity from the political bustle of the House and the tourist throngs on Westminster bridge.
Not any more. The now trampled green is temporary home to the press corps covering Brexit, and dominated by video cameras, bright lights and canvas marquees. Media from around the world have arrived to cover one of the key political stories of the day.
I spoke to journalists from Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Holland and Turkey; others had come from as far as China and Japan. Behind the lights and cameras, heavy-duty cables snaked away to satellite dishes and outside-broadcast trucks parked behind the green.
The UK press was present of course. The big guns such as the BBC and Channel 4 had their own interview platforms mounted up high at first-floor level, giving a view of the Abbey uninterrupted by the mass of video cameras from lesser mortals.
College Green has given the press a place to interview MPs and other political actors without needing access to Parliament itself. With the growing coverage of Brexit the site has become a tourist draw in itself; I witnessed Americans, Chinese and Japanese visitors, as well citizens of the EU itself, mingling with the demonstrators, taking selfies and trying to get into the background of TV interviews.
As the numbers of press and visitors to the site have risen, all hoping for a sight or, even better, an encounter with the stars of the Brexit cast, the MPs themselves, the police are having to increase their presence simply to ensure the safety of demonstrators and spectators lining a road with fast-moving traffic.
All Brexit tribes present
Last Thursday the chants and counter-chants of the opposing Brexit tribes echoed across the green, an ever-present audio background to the radio and TV presentations taking place.
It didn’t matter that the weather was bad, sometimes blowing a gale around the nearby buildings, or that heavy showers dampened the enthusiasm of spectators. The people I met, both Leave and Remain, were determined to make their point at what they saw as a critical moment in Britain’s history.
One demonstrator I encountered, a retired teacher from the Peak District, was very obviously a Remain supporter. Equipped with an EU-starred beret, a costume that combined both the Union Jack and EU flag and her own personal flagpole, she was renting a hotel room in London in order to be able to make her views felt outside Parliament.
A lifelong Labour voter, she had recently torn up her membership card in disgust at what she saw as lack of leadership from the party. Asked if that might be because Labour was as split as the Conservatives over Brexit, she thought that maybe a change in leadership would deliver a more EU-friendly policy.
I was struck by the fact that she was alone and surrounded by groups of flag-waving UKIP supporters, who were noisily voicing their Leave views to all and sundry. But that didn’t seem to faze her one bit – she was quite prepared to argue her case with anybody, even when certain opposition backers were less than polite in return.
Another lone demonstrator was a committed Leave supporter. A self-confessed Conservative voter, he believed that it was time that Brexit was carried out, and that WTO rules for trade would be absolutely fine.
That two people with completely opposing political views were able to exchange their opinions in a civilised way, despite being surrounded by the noisy chants of both sides, I thought was remarkable. That they could even draw a smile from each other under such conditions was even better. As one Danish journalist commented to me later on, in France such situations would have descended very quickly into riot.
Market day outside Parliament
As five o’clock and the time of the Commons vote approached, the noise level rose. The light was fading, yet the hard core of demonstrators who had spent the day there were joined by more people, each unwrapping the appropriate hats, jackets and flags as they arrived after work. Yet another London ‘manifestation’ was under way.
You could find a supporter for every Brexit view being debated in Parliament. Leave, Remain, Deal, No-Deal, WTO Rules, People’s Vote, even Third Referendum – all had their backers, declaimers, press watchers and assorted members of the tribe.
For anyone following the Brexit process, it was all hugely entertaining. Brexit is one of the most serious political issues facing Britain today, perhaps the most serious of all. Yet as the differing groups of supporters moved up and down the pavement on the edge of the green, most of the interchanges were good-humoured. I could not help thinking of the atmosphere of a market day, with tradesmen parading their wares and shouting the prices as they went.
Everyone present, press and public, was waiting for the results of the 17.30 vote in the House of Commons, on what we thought was the last of three critical votes. Amusingly, most of the journalists themselves were in the same position as the general public, watching their mobile phones for the latest news.
By the end of the day however, it became clear that this vote was not the last; yet another proposal was being scheduled for debate next week. It also became clear that many people were descending into frustration over the whole Brexit process. Time and again I heard the view, from supporters of both sides, that Parliament should make a decision one way or the other.
Time for a decision
I had to leave before the key Parliamentary vote of the day took place, so only heard the results of the proposed Article 50 extension later. But I found the day hugely interesting as well as educational.
What was apparent most of all was that everyone present wanted a decision one way or the other. Whether that decision is Leave with a Deal, Leave without a Deal or Remain, most people appear to want the decision made for good or ill, so that they can get on with their lives and adjust any future plans accordingly.
The principles of Brexit such as self-determination and control of borders are still considered important, but so are concerns about conforming to international standards on human rights, climate and the environment. The overwhelming consensus was that it is time Parliament made a decision, even if that decision later turns out to be not the best one.
Did the day change my views on Brexit? Not really. I still believe Brexit is the right choice for the UK in the long term. But I also believe, somewhat counter-intuitively, that it will in addition benefit the European Union.
Because a Britain outside the EU will be able to take some of the more difficult decisions that will be necessary in the future, unconstrained by having to gain agreement across 28 EU member states. And a Britain taking difficult decisions will help the EU in turn to make up its mind to do the same.
Even if the present decision-making process is not the best of examples.
© Philip Hunt, 2019.