Home / Politics / Political Protests / The Guardian view on the People’s Vote march: a force for good | Editorial | Opinion

The Guardian view on the People’s Vote march: a force for good | Editorial | Opinion

Sixteen years ago, Tony Blair watched a million people march past Downing Street, imploring him not to join US president George W Bush in invading Iraq. Mr Blair, in the words of one writer this week, “concluded, catastrophically, that they were a million of the misguided”. It was Mr Blair who turned out to be misguided. The march against the Iraq war was a turning point in Mr Blair’s political career, and one that he never recovered from. Unlike Mr Blair, Theresa May is not in the pomp of her premiership. Given the Brexit cliffhanger at Westminster, her fall from power promises to be far steeper and more sudden. But when these momentous times are reviewed, few events will possess such an importance as the people out on the streets of London on Saturday for the People’s Vote march. Unless a bolt of inspiration strikes, Mrs May will make the same mistake her predecessor made: ignoring a mass public protest on the defining issue of the day.

This is not because what happens in parliament or Brussels is unimportant. Far from it. Mrs May’s tone-deaf approach to politics has been repeatedly exposed in these arenas, leading to her executive power ebbing away. She finally went rogue on Wednesday with probably the single most stupid televised speech ever made from behind a Downing Street lectern by a sitting prime minister. She had the audacity to tell the public that “I am on your side”. The march will remind her that she is not and rebut her repeated invocation of them in defence of an unpopular policy. The public, for Mrs May, meant some people and not others. Mrs May’s language this week set out explicitly to undermine her parliamentary opposition. Yet it is the government of Mrs May – not lawmakers – which has failed the people over Brexit. Encounters with dissenting opinion, all too often for Mrs May over Brexit, are framed as a grim struggles – to be ground away by her obstinacy. Any attempt to understand the referendum vote in a different way has, under Mrs May’s leadership, been characterised as a defamation of her one true Brexit.

Except it was never that. The June 2016 referendum was not meant to be a full stop in a conversation about politics in this country. The People’s Vote march will show that a higher ideal of democracy exists – that everyone can participate in shaping their own life and their community’s. Like the online petition to revoke article 50 and cancel Brexit, the march will demonstrate that Mrs May cannot define the public; that voters have a will and opinions of their own. It is no coincidence that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” is listed in the first amendment of the US constitution, and that along with the freedom of the press, of speech and of religion, is considered critical to democracy. The effectiveness of protest can be measured by its impact on the public, the media, MPs and government. But it will also have a profound impact on the protesters – that they are no longer an audience but a force. This would undoubtedly be a good thing.

What distinguishes a march’s power from a carnival is that it ought to bring clarity to a debate. For the march’s organisers the question is Brexit; and their answer is a referendum to overturn it, although not all marchers might agree. The process will be ultimately decided by arguments in parliament. An acceptable resolution of Brexit is impossible while the country lacks the political leadership to explain a moment to a country that does not understand it. Mrs May’s lack of human empathy has helped hole her deal twice. If it is allowed to be put before MPs next week, her deal will fail again. That no one is keen to own Brexit underlines its toxicity. Mrs May could get Labour votes by softening her deal with a customs union, but that hazards a Tory schism. If Jeremy Corbyn pushed Brexit through then he would risk alienating his remainer base. Europe’s leaders have given Britain until 22 May to work out how to proceed. Brexit is unlikely to be resolved by then. The EU and Britain will need time to rethink. Time bought by marchers in central London.


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