The United Kingdom’s (UK’s) Brexit quagmire took another tortuous turn on Wednesday (August 28th). Boris Johnson, the newly coronated Prime Minister, gained Royal assent for his plan to suspend the UK parliament for five weeks. This suspension will make it extremely difficult for Members of Parliament (MPs) to prevent the UK from crashing out of the EU, in a No-Deal Brexit, at the end of October. A majority of MPs are opposed to No-Deal and only about a third of the public support No Deal.
On Wednesday thousands of people took to the streets in opposition to this attempt to subvert parliamentary democracy. These protests sprang up, with little advance organisation, in at least ten cities across the UK. Today, Thursday, protests continued in these cities, and they were joined by protests in other towns and cities. Protests are planned for at least sixty towns and cities this weekend.
Chris Gilligan joined a protest in Dumfries, a Scottish town, (with a population of about 40,000), near the border with England. He sent this report.
‘This is the biggest recent protest I’ve seen in Dumfries’. A number of protestors told me. One added that it was ‘bigger than the protest against Trump’s visit in June’. Contrary to the claims of some No Deal Brexit cheerleaders, this was not just a gathering of disgruntled Remain supporters (people who want the UK to remain in the European Union (EU). Yes, there were some EU flags in evidence, but they were drowned out by the messages on the homemade placards. Two inter-related themes dominated. Anger directed against Boris Johnson and opposition to the attempt to circumvent democracy.
Anger against Johnson: ‘No one voted for Boris’. ‘Jog on Johnson’. ‘Boris, Broken, Britain’. ‘Stop Boris, Stop Brexit’.
Defence of democracy: ‘Defend democracy. Stop the coup’. ‘Save our democracy’. ‘Resist tyranny’. ‘R.I.P. democracy’. ‘Assault on democracy’. ‘A democratic outrage’.
The protest was called by a young (twentysomething) woman and a few of her friends. None of them had experience of organising anything like this before. They told me some of their motivations for organising the event.
‘It’s an opportunity to unite everyone, regardless of political party affiliation, who’s opposed to this attack on democracy. When the government uses its power to push what a minority want, we have to use the power of people to say, No!.’
‘The government is denying the possibility of debate about the most important decision facing the country today. If we roll over and let this happen, we will be saying that we don’t care about democracy’.
‘This is an unelected Prime Minister who is taking extreme measures to shut down debate. He is closing down the official channel for our views to be heard. We need to organise protests like this to say, ‘You can’t ignore the people’’.
One protestor I spoke to, conveyed a strong sense that government was acting over the heads of people when she said:
‘I can’t believe the UK has fallen into the hands of one man, and not just one man, but a total idiot’.
Another suggested that MPs, not just the government, did not represent the common people.
‘MPs are supposed to represent us. They don’t do a great job for the common people at the best of times, but now they are being prevented from doing it at all.’
Other sentiments were expressed by protestors I spoke to. One person pointed out that Scotland voted against leaving the EU, but their views are being ignored by English MPs. Another pointed to a class dimension when she said that ‘the well-off will be protected’ from the damage of a No-Deal Brexit, ‘but people like us don’t have that cushion’.
One protestor expressed bewilderment at the Brexit debacle.
‘It’s really confusing. Both the Leave side and the Remain side say that they are the democrats and the other side are anti-democratic. There are so many aspects – trade, the constitution, democracy, WTO-this, Norway-that – it’s really confusing. We’ve forgotten how to have a rational argument, politics is all just shouting insults at each other. The trade experts are saying that No-Deal is a terrible idea. The No-Deal people are saying that we have nothing to fear.’
When I asked her why she was on the protest if she found Brexit so confusing, she said.
‘I don’t trust the No-Deal boys in parliament. They’re all Eton educated, private school, moneyed people. They don’t represent me. They don’t represent the common person. Then they go and do this. They close down parliament. I don’t care if you’re Leave or Remain, that’s undemocratic’.
The whole protest had a DIY feel to it. All the placards were homemade. There were no Party ones, or official campaign ones. There was no megaphone and no speakers. There was just chanting and chatting. And the chants seemed to be made up on the spot. What it lacked in polish, it made up for in excitement and innovation.
About half an hour into the protest, someone, not one of the organisers, pointed out that the location, in a pedestrianised part of the town, and the time, after all the shops were closed, was not ideal for a protest. They suggested that we march through the town to another, busier, location. A veteran protestor pointed out that marching was illegal without a permit. The response, from a number of protestors, was spontaneous and refreshing. ‘Ok. So, we won’t march. We’ll just walk. Together’. And off we set.
Chris Gilligan is a veteran migrant rights activist in Northern Ireland and Scotland. He is the author of “Northern Ireland and the Crisis of Anti-racism.” His writings on Brexit have been published in a number of publications, including: OpenDemocracy, the Rosa Luxemburg Institute Brexit Blog and With Sober Senses (the online publication of the Marxist-Humanist Initiative)