Can marches change anything?
There are plenty of people who would argue no. They would point to them being basically a comfort blanket for the left, a way to get its activists revved up.
It feels good to be among large numbers of like minded people and “building the demo” is a great way to harness people’s energy and enthusiasm and to keep them, and crucially their subs, turning up.
Beyond that? “I’ve been on countless marches. They’ve never changed a thing,” is what a trade unionist friend of mine said to me a while back.
The referendum marches, and especially the forthcoming one, are quite different.
For the last three years the government of Theresa May has acted as if the only debate around Brexit is over how hard it should be.
Remainers, even soft leavers, have been airbrushed from its thinking and its discussions. Ditto those who voted Leave and have changed their minds, many of whom are members of the large and vocal Remainer community. Let’s not forget, too, the democrats who, regardless of their own opinions on the subject, rightly reason that the British people ought to be given a final say, given that we’ve gone from super special awesome deal to dismal May deal to a no deal that Boris Johnson and his chums said simply couldn’t possibly happen.
The situation has deteriorated still further during the course of the current Tory leadership campaign. Contenders regularly, and without irony, talk about no deal and uniting the country in the same breath. That’s right, the best way to “bring people together” is to wander off into a catastrophic fantasy land favoured only by a minority of screaming zealots, kicking everyone in the teeth in the process.
They all talk, like May did, about the need to “deliver Brexit” for the “British people”, as if the country doesn’t contain millions of people who think otherwise; as if those who believe they should have a say on what’s being offered up simply don’t exist.
A Tory party engaged in a process of talking to itself needs to be reminded that they do, and forcefully. It also needs to be shaken into realising that there will be a price to pay if it rams something unpleasant down the public’s throats.
It’s true that a lot of marchers would be considered progressive; Liberal Democrats, the sensible part of the Labour Party, Greens, Scottish Nationalists and people uncommitted to one or other of them but who find themselves somewhere within that spectrum. But it also includes Tories such as Michael Heseltine, a far more substantial figure than any of those currently campaigning to become prime minister, and respected MPs such as Dominic Grieve, and Conservatives for a people’s vote.
Demonstrating the diversity of opinion opposed to the government’s current course is just as important as demonstrating its strength in terms of numbers. It is necessary to put to bed the patronising and offensive claim that it’s only a mythical north London liberal elite that thinks a no-deal Brexit is a thoroughly bad idea.
The march, and the planned series of rallies, can do that. The media wasn’t able to ignore nearly a million people on the streets last time, and it won’t be able to ignore it this time, however much certain Brexiteers would like it to.
That’s why I will be hauling myself, wheelchair and all, across London with them.
The Conservative government needs to understand that there can be no “moving on” by getting Brexit “over the line” unless the form of it is first endorsed by a popular mandate.
I remember discussing Brexit with a French cameraman who filmed me for a piece on the impact of no deal on those of us who rely upon prescription drugs for our survival a while back.
“Why are you not on the streets?” he asked. “We would have been.”