‘War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing’ goes Edwin Starr’s celebrated 1970 Motown hit. And while the opposition to Brexit is not as forthright as the opposition to the Vietnam War, a similar sentiment of well, ‘what is it good for’ was distinctly felt as tens of thousands of people descended on Parliament at the weekend in the Unite for Europe march.
In amongst the crowds, it was refreshing to see such a peaceful and good-natured demonstration of free-speech, especially taking into account how such actions are not so easy to do elsewhere in the world.One only needs to look at the efforts and ramifications of protests in Russia at the same time to see how different our democracies function in the face of public dissent.
The march, organised by a coalition of Euro-sympathetic groups and crowdfunded by remain campaigners, began from Park Lane on what was one of the sunniest days of 2017 so far.
Indeed, some were so taken with the weather it was not uncommon to see for every 10 placards someone brandishing a 99 flake, or a demure can of gin and tonic. It was hard to get away from the notion that many of those present were of the capital’s liberal middle class, the target of much ire from Brexiteers.
There was a heavy Liberal Democrat influence on the march, with stickers and placards bearing their logo as they have become the de facto Brexit opposition party, while leading figures of the Conservative party featured on signs and posters too – though not in a flattering light.
Yet while this was no doubt a significant and impressive demonstration down the roads of history through Trafalgar Square and Whitehall, it was ultimately a disappointment that no matter how fervently one pounded the pavement, Theresa May still signalled her intent for Britain to leave the EU in her letter on Wednesday.
This outcome was not in doubt to those marching on Saturday, and it recalled the protest against the Iraq invasion- one of the biggest protest marches in London’s recent history – but look how that turned out. Of course, this is not to say that protesting is a waste and it is a powerful part of democracy and free speech that should be celebrated and anyone should feel free to make their views known in a peaceful manner.
But it just felt too late.
Should this not have come much earlier? I think many would accept some form of responsibility of being complacent in the build-up to the referendum in June of last year.
That cannot however be said for many EU citizens living in the UK who now have the unenviable position of feeling incredibly unsure about their immediate future.
One Italian citizen told me on Saturday: “I love this country, I’ve lived here for 19 years. I’ve paid my taxes. But now I feel like I’m not wanted and all I’ve given has been for nothing. Has it?”
I couldn’t give an answer, unfortunately, as ministers have decided not to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK as part of their negotiations with the EU during the two-year Article 50 process.
It doesn’t seem entirely fair to use human beings as bargaining chips, but hey, what do I know.There was hope in the form of members of the younger generation who turned out in surprisingly ample number on the march. At the beginning of the route, one boy stood on some roadside railings and stoically held a loft a sign that simply said: “I want my future back”.
Further on, as we thundered down Pall Mall, a group of youngsters aged from 10-12 passed by chanting “too young to vote, old enough to care” succinctly encapsulating the frustration of youth we all can recognise.
Rounding the corner to Whitehall, the familiar opening horn blasts of La Marseillaise rang out from above which then became the even more familiar harmonic chants of ‘Love, love, love’ of John, Paul, George and Ringo as it was the opening of the Beatles’ famous flower-power hit ‘All You Need is Love’. Somebody was making an enterprising use of a good sound system.
There was a moment for reflection as we passed the war memorials, and a brass band as part of the march coincidentally played the Anthem for Europe, the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, the ‘Ode to Joy’. It caused one to recall the devastation that was the catalyst for creating the EU in the first place.
That moment was punctured by the loud chorus of boos as the march passed by Downing Street. The day’s efforts culminated in a gathering in Parliament Square, under the shadow of Big Ben and Westminster Cathedral, where a host of speakers such as Tim Farron, Alistair Campbell and Nick Clegg reiterated the need to fight Brexit every step of the way.
However, their words fell on deaf ears. There were thousands who remained, but also plenty who made their exit, feeling their exploits were complete or they had got what they wanted to out of the short pilgrimage.
Many who had carried flowers to Westminster then lay them on the bridge in tribute to those who had died in the terrorist attack just days before.But along the banks of the Thames and in the immediate surroundings of Westminster, it wasn’t uncommon to see after-marchers with their EU flag capes or face-paint streaked as they enjoyed the sunshine with their friends.
So it is and will be. The sun will still shine from time to time, friends will be there when you need them and life will go on.
And that is what they will have been thinking in Parliament this week. Demonstrations will happen from time to time, but Brexit will go on.
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