Saturday I attended my first protest march in over twenty years. In a few words, it was in support of staying in the single market and remaining an inclusive society. In Cambridge some 400 people made up the trail of marchers. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s early days yet. This was one of those ‘gathering of the troops’ march and rally. Now that parliament has reconvened, I suspect future marches will be more focused on one issue or another concerning how we leave the EU – if that really happens. Speculations abound.
I came away from this activity thinking about a few things. First, there was the cross-party spirit of the event. The speakers at the rally included not only the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats, no surprises there, but also politicians from Labour and the Conservatives. The idea of leaving Europe effects so many people in so many ways. Working across parties is an aspect of being in the grown-up world, away from the club-house mentally of the zealot, of the closed-minded.
The march also gave me more face-to-face encounters with people who support Brexit. One man barked at us, ‘It’s over – go home!’ Is it over? Our government doesn’t seem to think so. Since the Brexit camp left us with no plan and a campaign based on twisted facts and some downright lies, how the UK actually leaves the EU is still up for grabs. Another person, an elderly woman, pointed her fingers at a few of us and said, ‘I’m from the North and we’re poor up there!’ This is just another example of the protest voting that happened on 23rd June. Yes, the divide in wealth between the North and South of England is something to be unhappy about – but why is that the fault of the European Union? What about our own governments over the last three decades? Before I had a chance to question this woman, she, like the uppity man, was gone. That to me sums up much of the Brexit campaign – single utterances or catch phrases without discussion, without debate.
These hecklers were few. As we walked with our banners, signs and EU flags through the windy streets of central Cambridge, we were greeted mostly by applause and thumbs-up gestures. When we stopped to wait for street lights or for some of our number to catch up, we were the subject of mobile phone photographs – dozens of them. There is something immensely comforting about feeling that your views are generally shared. Of course, it’s more complicated than that.
After a few casual discussions with my fellow marchers, I returned to Ely with a sense of dismay as well. There seemed to be strong agreement that the Liberal Democrats were the only party in total support of remaining in the EU and their speaker at the rally, Julian Huppert, was the best received and most inspiring. Yet – and here comes the disappointing part – some of my fellow marchers raised the point that the Lib Dems have the right message, but cannot speak to ‘ordinary people.’ One person said to me ‘They need to tone it down – keep it simple.’ I would argue that the simplicity of the referendum debate is what made it more about emotions and less adherent to facts and gave us the disasterous outcome we are now living under. It might take a generation, but perhaps we should flip this argument and raise the education and understanding of ‘ordinary people.’