As the news of the success of the Letwin amendment filtered out to the hundreds of thousands who had once again marched to Parliament Square to demand a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal, there was the most reassuringly British of reactions: widespread applause in the rain.
Related: Voices from the People’s Vote march
Throaty cheers and whistles gave way to nuanced conversations from under umbrellas and the hoods of cagoules as to what might happen next. Could the prime minister really defy the law on an extension to force his pig-in-lipstick deal through?
There had been plenty of good reasons not to travel from the country’s four corners to march in the capital: the rugby, the money, the ennui. And above all there had been the danger that the timing might make it all futile anyhow. That – by the time marchers reached Parliament Square– the demand for a confirmatory referendum would have finally been thwarted, and the latest million man-woman-and-child march would turn into a wake or a vigil. But the marchers turned up anyway, and they were, under darkening skies, rewarded with yet another possible hint of light.
The prime minister had attempted to choreograph his “Super Saturday” session of parliament in the tradition of previous crisis-sittings, those that had assembled for debate about war in 1939 and conflict in Suez in 1956 and the Falklands in 1982.
This time, in Johnson’s telling, the battle lines were drawn between parliament and the people. By “people” Johnson meant that section of the population identified by Nigel Farage on the morning after the referendum vote when, in announcing his poundshop “independence day”, he had talked of Brexit as a victory for “real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people.”
Among the most dangerous themes of that politics of division has been to tell some parts of the population that they are more grounded here in blood and in soil than others. The hundreds of thousands of very real people determined to march once more in London told a very different, more inclusive, island story. One that cuts across borders of politics and circumstance and region. And if ministers had wanted to see the will of those people in full force, they could have looked out of the windows of the Palace of Westminster.
They would have seen people like Dave Blackburn, 62, a support worker for autistic adults, who had come down with a small group overnight on the bus from Glasgow. “It was getting down to the wire and I still thought there was a chance of a second vote,” Blackburn told me before the march set off. “My friends are mostly for Scottish independence, and whatever happens I think that battle will now be won. But I think this, leaving the EU, will anyway be a disaster for working people.”
His fellow sleepless traveller Sheila Connolly, who works with young homeless people, laughed at how their bus down had been advertised with reclining seats “but that only seemed to apply to seats in front of you”. She had to be here because she would be devastated if Johnson’s deal passed. “I don’t care what they say, this is another way for them to come for working people,” she said.
Or the politicians might have seen Emmanuelle Brook, a teaching assistant in her 40s with two children, among 500 people up from Cornwall. Brook, born in France, has lived in the UK for 24 years. “We came here on a set of rules we thought would last, and now I have been made a foreigner again,” she said.
“I get asked where I am from all the time.” She had been scared about today, had the deal been ratified. “Not just the economics but the human impact of Brexit. I may be safe here, but I no longer feel it.”
Strangely, as the debates unfolded and the march once again inched toward its destination, there appeared to be no mention of the presence of its massed ranks at the government dispatch box. Not for the first time in recent years it was as if the world inside the chamber bore no relation to that outside its doors, a Westminster bubble indeed. Among the marchers there was, oddly, a similar lack of curiosity about the progress of the debates happening up the road, a sense that everything that could have been said on the subject had long since been said, and that it was now a stubborn numbers game of ayes and noes.
The turnout of marchers, coaches and buses from all over, and their mostly irrepressible good humour, once again provided an alternative set of figures to contemplate. Despite the heckling of Andrea Leadsom and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was with his young son, as they left the Commons, this may well be the most good-natured and well-mannered of protest movements the country has ever mustered, but no one should doubt its determination.
The thousands on the streets in this most British of rebellions was testament to the persistence of that constituency who still believe that “just get it done” is not a basis on which to run a parliamentary democracy. And, like Oliver Letwin, that four hours is not long enough to scrutinise the most significant piece of legislation in a generation.
Talk to almost any one of that number and you would be hard-pressed to make a case against the idea that, at heart, Brexit has become an assault on the salt of the earth. Judith Spencer, who spent her career as a psychologist on the civil servants’ appointment board, is 79; she is walking with the “In Limbo” group of EU citizens and UK citizens in Europe, the five million who still live with willed uncertainty. “I was born here half-Japanese in 1940,” Spencer tells me. “And I encountered discrimination from the word go. To see mature professional Europeans who have made their lives here suffering discrimination in this country now really horrified me. Hearing that their kids are being terrorised in the playgrounds. I can feel the country moving backwards.”
By now, among seasoned marchers, there are few new placards under the sun, but there seemed more saltires and Welsh dragons and county flags alongside EU flags and Union Jacks this time, as people asserted what should never have been in doubt: that all citizens enjoy layers of identity. In among these banners, there was the usual smattering of blunt regional aphorism. A party from Aberdeen had gone with the straightforward “Boris is a Bawbag”. Those from Stratford had chosen a quote from The Tempest “bless our Europe”. Then there was “Bramm orth Brexit”, which translated, I was reliably informed, with apologies to Monty Python, as “I fart in Brexit’s general direction.”
Cassie Histed, a warehouse worker from Warwick, is amused and heartened by the good cheer of the march, the fact that it represents all ages and classes. Most of the marches she has joined in the past have had an angrier edge. She has always identified herself, she tells me, as part of the Sea-Green society which traces its history of protest back to the Levellers of the English civil war. She is on the Europhile wing of that group. “Those who don’t want to be left adrift in the north Atlantic with Boris steering.”
Those famed “ardent” Leave voters who favour that latter option might swallow the idea that these odd alliances of Remainers are a representation of some elite or other. They may snigger about the commitment of people who are angry at the railroading of our politics but who are not, by nature, angry people. They might, too, however, reflect on the fact that, in three-and-a-half years, the most notable collective showings of Brexit voters has been the 29 March “Brexit Day” gathering, dominated by the intelligentsia of the Football Lads’ Alliance and their arthritic desire for a ruck in the name of Engerlund.
Martyn Cattermole, a retired management consultant, who was marching with his family, has discovered many things in the course of protests over the last year. One of them is that a hollowed-out Pringles tube makes a very effective loud hailer. He brought his two young sons along, he says, because “we are trying to teach them that democracy doesn’t just happen or exist – you have to keep trying to fight for it”.
Those drifting away from Parliament Square, and gathering for coaches and trains, carried that idea home with them. The chances are they will be back again later in the year to demonstrate it once again.