The politicians have failed — only the people can get Britain out of the mess it is in
In response to the nearly 6 million people who signed an online petition urging the UK government to Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, the Department of Exiting the European Union — a name that sounds as if it was borrowed from either a Monty Python sketch or George Orwell’s 1984 — has made it clear that the government will never accept this plea to reverse Brexit, “because failing to deliver Brexit would cause, as was argued by the prime minister ‘potentially irreparable damage to public trust.’”
How could all the millions of people who signed this petition have failed to realize that this government’s main concern is to avoid losing the trust of the British populace? Maybe someone should have delivered the news to this failed administration that its prime minster is clinging to her position by the skin of her teeth, and that there is not an ounce of confidence left anywhere in Britain about the way her government is running the country, and especially in how it is dealing with Brexit.
The entire embarrassing process of attempting to leave the EU has exposed the inability of the political system to make crucial decisions, and its detachment from the lives and realities of most ordinary people. It is not only the petition that should have made the political elite come to its senses, but also the one million marchers who packed central London at the weekend to call for a second referendum on the outcome of this political debacle that has engulfed and drained British society to near breaking point.
I joined the marchers last Saturday with a sense of civic duty to be among those who were expressing a very simple request to have a say about an issue that will affect the country for generations to come. What made this plea even more powerful, not to mention sheer common sense, was that only few days later parliament, in a series of indicative votes, could not even agree on one of eight options, let alone the government’s binding deal.
During the protest march, a crowd diverse in terms of age, gender and ethnicity created a mosaic-like pattern of EU flags and placards as it moved slowly toward the heart of the British political establishment in Westminster with a sense of purpose mixed with a good-natured atmosphere. They gathered from all corners of the country to protest and maintain the pressure on the government to give the people a say on what might prove to be the most important political decision of their lifetimes.
The images from the march also provided fuel for EU negotiators to push for a second referendum and in support of calls to remain. President of the European Council Donald Tusk told MEPs last week that they “cannot betray the six million people who signed the petition to revoke Article 50, the one million people who marched for a people’s vote, or the increasing majority of people who want to remain in the EU.”
With only a very tiny minority who are obsessed, literally, with hating Europe and delusional about the idea of the glorious UK being better off standing alone, a no-deal scenario has no place on the ballot.
Admittedly, the vast majority of those who flooded the streets of London and marched towards Parliament Square were Remainers. However, this does not detract from either the legitimacy or the logic of holding a second referendum. Unlike what the Brexiteers are trying to argue, especially the ultra-anti-Europeans of the European Research Group, to ask for a second referendum is not a sign of Remainers being sore losers, as pro-exit lobby loves to put it, and neither is it undemocratic.
On the contrary, when the prime minister is dug in deep in her trenches insisting on support for a deal that has already been heavily defeated twice, when she cannot agree a better one with Brussels, and while Parliament is divided and constantly at war with itself, the only democratic and sensible option is to go back to the people and present them with two clear options: support the deal as it was presented to parliament or vote to remain part of the EU. With only a very tiny minority who are obsessed, literally, with hating Europe and delusional about the idea of the glorious UK being better off standing alone, a no-deal scenario has no place on the ballot.
Interestingly enough, if the extreme Brexiteers are so convinced that their way is the true will of the people, how come they have not managed to bring their supporters onto the streets even once, while Remainers have already done so twice?
In an age in which leadership is in desperately short supply it was refreshing to hear two outstanding speeches that rallied the protesters. One was delivered by veteran Conservative politician Lord Michael Heseltine and the other Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader.
Heseltine, a former Tory deputy prime minister, captured the mood not only of the crowd but also of the country when he declared that given the pressure under which the UK’s political institutions are working, and the breakdown in trust both domestically and with its European interlocutors, the inescapable conclusion is that any deal that parliament might now agree “will inevitably be the lowest common denominator of reluctant compromise. This is no way to chart a nation’s future. One way or another the people must decide; they must be free to vote to remain.”
Watson threw some bait to Prime Minister Theresa May, suggesting offering support for her deal if she puts it to a public vote that includes an option to remain. It is a great shame that the current leaders of both Watson’s and Heseltine’s parties conveniently chose to avoid the protesters.
The good nature of the marchers should not lead anyone to underestimate the determination of the crowd. Those who came to protest at the heart of the Westminster establishment were under no illusion that their show of force might guarantee any shift in either the government’s or parliament’s position. The members are too isolated, too self-obsessed with political maneuvering — and most probably out of their depth.
However, for every one of those marchers it was important to make it clear to those in the Westminster village that since they have failed miserably to get the country out of the calamitous situation which, in their wisdom, they got us into, then it must be for the British people to do it for them, whether that mean leaving or remaining.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.