The sense of a citizens’ revolt hung heavy in the air around Westminster on Friday afternoon as a host of Leave supporting groups gathered for rallies, furious at the MPs who have denied them the Brexit they were promised.
As it became clear the UK would not leave the EU on 29 March, as originally planned, and MPs rejected Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement for the third time, tens of thousands of Leave supporters marched to show their anger, confirming at the same time a deep rift across UK society.
Despite a heavy police presence and helicopters whirring overhead, most of the thousands of marchers vented their fury and frustration in a very British way – with only a handful of arrests and no major incidents.
The referendum result in June 2016 was the backlash of provincial England. London, Scotland and England’s other big cities voted Remain, but a sea of surrounding towns voted heavily to Leave.
Brexit was decided by the communities who felt ‘left behind’ by a generation of politicians, and on Friday, they descended on Westminster.
“Brexit was a symptom of trends that I have seen developing in my life. There should have been no surprise that cities voted Remain and nearby towns voted Leave. Those two Englands have been moving apart for quite some time,” Lisa Nandy told a conference organised by the UK in a Changing Europe, a stone’s throw from Parliament Square.
Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan, one of the satellite towns around Liverpool, who campaigned for a Remain vote but now says that lawmakers must take the UK out of the EU but into a permanent customs union.
“There is real anger in towns like mine about the political settlement. There was anger about institutions that had come to represent the remoteness and unaccountability of people with no skin in the game. And we haven’t learnt the lessons,” she added.
On the street in front of College Green, colonised by the broadcast media throughout the last few months of parliamentary drama, one marcher said:
“I voted to Leave and when they triggered Article 50, I thought ‘this issue’s done’. As far as I’m concerned, we should have left today at 11pm”.
Friday’s rally was strewn with pockets of far-right campaign groups and Ulster loyalists, in a reminder of the ethnonationalism that has been stirred by Brexit.
While former UKIP frontman Nigel Farage and Richard Tice, the multi-millionaire businessman who fronts ‘Leave means Leave’, a group that wants a ‘no deal’ Brexit, addressed their supporters across the road from the House of Commons, a rival rally by far-right activist Tommy Robinson and UKIP leader Gerard Batten took place a few hundred yards away in Downing Street.
Although public support for a second referendum has increased, few believe that it would do anything to heal the deep divisions across Britain.
“A second referendum wouldn’t be about Brexit it would be about how the establishment diddled the public,” said Sir Ivan Rogers, who resigned as Theresa May’s ambassador to the EU in January 2017 over her Article 50 negotiating tactics.
“The failure of the process is that the public is more divided than it was 33 months ago. There is no optimal outcome out there. If you argue theologically from both sides, we are all dead,” he added
Catherine Barnard, an EU law professor at Cambridge University, added that on top of passion and anger, “fatigue has set in. This is not a good way to make decisions.”
Henry Newman, director of the Open Europe thinktank, warned that ‘no deal’ would threaten political relations in the EU and Europe.
“That could lead to a radicalisation of the Tory party and a very populist leader,” he said.
Many in Brussels (and Westminster) will look at Friday’s Brexit marchers as ‘the enemy’, but that would be wrong.
The truth is that Brexit was a citizens’ revolt against the EU and against politicians at home. And three years on, nobody knows what to do.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]