• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

All those in favour of Brexit, say ‘huh?’

Theresa May. Photo/Getty Images

Confusion reigns in the UK with Brexit negotiations a mess and few solutions on offer.

On the whole, the English are not big protesters. They can certainly moan, and frequently do, but protesting is something they leave to the French, whose first reaction to any change of law, however minor, is to rip up paving stones and set tyres on fire.

It takes a lot to get the English out on the streets. A war, for example. About a million people turned out back in 2003 to demonstrate against the impending invasion of Iraq. And it made not the slightest difference. It was a nice day out and many of the placards were amusing, but the war went ahead.

Last month, an estimated 700,000 people converged on central London for a rally in favour of a new Brexit referendum – billed as the “people’s vote”. As critics asked, in whose name was the first referendum, the one that voted to leave the European Union? The situation brought to mind Bertolt Brecht’s ironic comment about dissolving the people and electing another.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The argument – and it has some merit – is that no one really understood the consequences of what they were voting for first time round. And now they do, or at least have a much better idea. Because everyone now realises that what they voted for, by common agreement, is a complete mess: at best an embarrassing compromise or, if that doesn’t work out, a total disaster.

So, 700,000 gathered in the autumn sunshine, carrying such deathless slogans as, “Pulling out doesn’t stop people coming”, “I’m so cross about this that I’m missing the football”, and “My mother-in-law lives in Spain. Please don’t make them send her back here!”

It was a very English affair. And, like the earlier march against the Iraq War, it made absolutely no difference. The country remains as divided and confused as it was before the demonstration. This tormented island continues onward in the strange paralysed world that we now inhabit. It’s a kind of parallel universe perhaps best summed up by the opposition Labour Party’s head-scratchingly impossible position.

Under the mute leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who is theoretically a “remainer” but in practice has campaigned for Brexit throughout his career, the Labour Party is opposed to a second referendum, but wants to keep its options open. However, if there is to be a second referendum, it’s all about what’s on the voting ballot.

The Labour leadership, which was supposedly in favour of remaining, now doesn’t want a remain option on the ballot. Instead, it would only support two options – Theresa May’s unpopular fudge, which it opposes, and a “no deal” Brexit, which it vehemently opposes.

It’s as if Lewis Carroll has come back from the dead and gone into the business of political strategy. Meanwhile, one of the leading Brexit supporters, former chancellor Nigel Lawson (perhaps better known these days as the father of Nigella), has announced that he is seeking residency in France. And the main financial backer of the “leave” campaign, a charmless creep by the name of Arron Banks, is being investigated by the National Crime Agency for allegedly financing the campaign illegally from offshore companies.

He denies the claims, and the suggestion that Russian money was involved, but he says that if he had his time over again, he thinks “we would have been better to … remain”.

As another placard from the march said of Brexit: “The undefined being negotiated by the unprepared in order to get the unspecified for the uninformed”.

That about sums it up. But what to do? Protest? That seems to have been about as effective as shouting at the tide. The people have voted. We must respect that, even if no one can remember what they voted for.

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.