Two very different demonstrations within less than a week of each other neatly illustrated just how polarised British politics is.
On March 23, an estimated 1 million people took to the streets calling for a second referendum or “people’s vote” on Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU).
They argue that the electorate has a better idea now of the deal it might be getting and what the consequences are for the economy and people’s rights to live, work and travel freely in any of the 27 member states.
This crowd was socially liberal and mostly leftish-leaning. The People’s Vote campaign leadership is made up of a small number of Conservatives (Tories) and a larger group of right-wing Labour figures.
The following Friday, March 29, the day Britain was originally due to leave the EU, a number of right-wing factions held demonstrations outside Parliament to mark the event. These ranged from fairly mainstream Tories to explicitly fascist, racist and Islamophobic groups, including a flute band that celebrates pro-British, sectarian killers in Ireland and whose emblem incorporates a Confederate flag.
This is the bulk of the pro-Brexit movement. A useful aphorism to remember is that not everyone who supports Brexit is a racist, but every racist supports Brexit.
On March 23, people carried placards and banners supporting migrants’ rights and freedom of movement. On March 29,they dragged effigies of London’s Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan along the road, in a visual reference to how traitors were executed in medieval England.
The two movements have radically different alliances, programs and rhetoric.
In the interval between the demonstrations, parliament witnessed unprecedented levels of governmental meltdown and procedural “innovations”.
Normally, a proposal is put to the vote and is accepted or rejected. This time, however, various groups of MPs put forward nine different proposals to see which commanded most support.
British newspapers took to publishing flowcharts to explain what the outcome of each might be, as a general sense of bewilderment was the dominant feeling among most voters.
Labour instructed its MPs to support a second referendum, even though the leadership’s preferred, publicly-stated option is a soft Brexit, involving remaining in a customs union with the EU. Forty of them voted against or abstained.
In the meantime, an open civil war exists in the Tory Party. Anti-Brexit MPs are facing de-selection in their constituencies. Prime Minister Theresa May’s offer to resign if MPs voted for her deal — on a fourth attempt to get it approved — has flushed out a dozen potential leadership candidates. They have all started getting articles published in the Tory press, explaining why they are right for the job.
Scotland will be a major headache for the Brexiteers. The strongly pro-EU Scottish National Party has 59 MPs in Westminster, having wiped out Labour in Scotland in the previous election.
It has stepped up calls for a second independence referendum if Britain leaves and polls are starting to show that Brexit would tip the balance in their favour. So, in a delicious historical irony, the main demand of chauvinist British nationalists could well speed up the fragmentation of the British state.
In an admission that the Tories cannot come to a consensus about what to do next without splitting the party, May has requested an extension to the Brexit deadline, in the vain hope that it gives them time to “break the logjam”.
After two years of denouncing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as an anti-semitic, Hamas supporting, pro-IRA, Marxist incompetent, May has now invited him to help her formulate a solution. For tactical reasons he has agreed, but it is improbable anything will emerge from their discussions.
Inevitably, a general election is on the cards. Labour supporters are desperate for it and the Tories are reluctant to call it because they fear they will lose.
Corbyn proved himself to be an outstanding campaigner last time and the Tories know he will do the same again. However, if Labour goes into an election promising to deliver Brexit, it will lose. The party’s members and most of its voters want to stay in the EU.
[Liam McQuade is a Labour Party member in London.]