Reuters reports today that there are plans afoot to move the Royal Family out of London if things turn sour I didn’t intend to blog about Brexit, but this jogged my memory. We were in London in the middle of January for the vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal (defeated 432-202) and Jeremy Corbyn’s subsequent vote of no confidence (lost, but not by much). The atmosphere in Westminster was peculiar. I made notes on my phone. Tourists went on taking selfies of themselves in front of buildings famous from news stories like this one, more interested in the bricks and mortar than in history unfolding all around them. People wrapped in flags – EU flags, Union Jacks, St George’s Cross (and some in an amalgamation of some or all of those ) – strode up and down or stood conferring in urgent, impassioned groups. Buses and vans drove around in circles hoping to have their slogans caught by TV news cameras. A few hardy people did the same with placards. Then there were the badges and the stickers. Leave Means Leave. Bollocks to Brexit. Cancel Brexit. We Demand a People’s Vote.
The Leavers are louder, is my unprofessional assessment. They have drums, too, which have uneasy connotations for an Irish observer. The Remainers seem more numerous but also more restrained. Do those two things cancel each other out? It’s hard to know whether a second referendum would produce a different result. A lot of people say they blame the EU for the mess they’re in now. Some blame Ireland. Some MPs who should – and probably do – know better, blame Ireland. Here’s what people were saying on the streets, on the day of that vote. The vote Theresa May lost, before she undid her own hard-won agreement in order to win support from her own party; before she made it clear to the rest of the world that there was no point in negotiating with her about anything. A deal, apparently, is not a deal at all.
One old woman was yelling that Remainers should be shot while another, wearing a festive EU beret and wrapped in an EU flag, walked calmly past. A lone, home-made, placard pleaded: MPs: Vote with your conscience. A Liberty Bell tolled. There were UKIP banners and People’s Vote banners. A Spitting Image-like montage depicting Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and David Davis drove around in widening circles, reappearing at regular intervals. It declared Brexit is a monstrosity. Regular appearances by an Original Tour bus, (effectively a Union Jack on wheels) was a happy accident for the Leave camp.
An excited type shrieked for the police. He didn’t have to wait long, they were everywhere. “Anyone with a Bollocks to Brexit sticker should be arrested,” he insisted. He was nearly in tears. They tried to soothe him. An American reporter came over to a different group of police and asked them to make the drums and the liberty bell stop. She was told that they were exercising their democratic right to be heard. She said they were interfering with her viewers’ democratic right to hear what she had to say. She was there on behalf of the entire media, she said, gesturing behind her. Her colleagues were just getting on with it. Some were checking their notes. One reporter smoked non-stop. Every time I saw her, she had a fresh cigarette in her mouth. It looked like a festival in there, where the media were. There were little white tents and a few large stages. I wondered who got to decide which channel could go where – some were clearly in more advantageous spots than others. I suppose there was money involved. Leavers and Remainers hung over the railings side by side, hoping their banners or their painted faces would be caught on camera. The arguments the exchanged were mostly civil, although one man did say to a young woman, I hope you get home safely – an oddly threatening comment, no? A man waved a trio of balloons on what looked like a pantomime fishing rod, edging it closer to the BBC and Channel 4 stages.
There were balloons, there was singing. A woman asked a Leaver: will you be happier, if we leave? A man held up a banner saying: Leave, then negotiate. Another man came up to him and said, I like your banner, it’s the best I’ve seen. If we just leave – then all the french farmers and cheese and wine makers will sort it out. They want to sell to us – they’ll burn Paris to get a deal.
Someone yelled: Surrendering our Sovereignty is treason! Two young women passing-by exchanged looks. It’s really scary when you hear someone say that, one of them said.
A woman turned to me sadly: Just in two years, this has happened. The language that can be used against us is very aggressive.
There was a lot of jostling near the media railing, a stir of interest: Is that her? Asked who they were looking for, they said, Laura Kuenssberg. The week before, pro-EU MP Anna Soubry was hassled by a hostile crowd on her way back to Parliament from the BBC stage. There were shouts of Nazi! She told reporters that she wasn’t afraid but Jo Cox was on everyone’s mind.
There was a lot of discussion, some shouting but no jostling today. Back at the media scrum, there was a lot of complaint about John Bercow’s interventions. He was defending parliament, one person said but was contradicted by another: He’s not fit to be Speaker, it’s disgraceful.The word treason was liberally chucked around, attaching itself to named individuals on one side or the other as well as to Remainers in general and the People’s Vote organisers in particular.
Around in Parliament Square the People’s Vote had a stage and giant screens broadcasting speeches to a crowd, thousands-strong, who cheered and waved their banners. It could have been a match, everyone in their colours, each side with its own chants. I think it was Tony Robinson who said, Let me be clear: there is no left wing case for Brexit and got a roar of approval. When the vote was announced, Theresa May’s bill being defeated 432-202, there were chants of Resign! They eventually faded. We peeled away, wondering what would happen next.