Protests and Placard - Pre and Post Brexit, Are We Electing Leaders, Followers or Something Else Entirely?

15/07/2016 11:18 | Updated 15 July 2016

In 1998, I, along with thousands of other students, demonstrated against the introduction of £1,000 per year tuition fees by the then Labour Government, lead by Tony Blair. The fees would have no direct effect on me as I was in my final year of University. However, I felt compelled to add my support to this campaign. Believing then, as I do now, that education is one of the most significant factors in eradicating poverty, aiding social mobility and promoting community cohesion.

I carried my placard and felt an actual thrill of excitement as I thought, I'm a student on a demo; I'm making a stand; I'm part of a 'moment'; I'm going to make a difference. On that day, I really believed that I was - going to make a difference I mean.

Later that year, tuition fees were brought in and have risen since. I understand the arguments about funding our universities and I know the issues around access to higher education for all demographics in society are complex and varied and decisions are not solely about the rate of tuition fees. But, on that day, I honestly thought there was enough support from bright, engaged, interested young people and it would have some effect on Government policy.

In 2003, thousands of people took to the streets of London to protest against taking military action in Iraq. Demonstrations were also held in Glasgow and Belfast and in countries all around the world. I have since read reports that suggest it was the biggest ever demonstration in the UK. Undeniably it was huge, massive, significant, tremendous - use any superlative you can muster and stick that word to what was a phenomenal amount of people demonstrating to the, once again, Tony Blair lead Labour Government, that a lot of people wanted their elected representatives to look again and have another think about their course of action. The war started on 20th March 2003.

I think for many that moment was pivotal in our national consciousness. I think it goes to the heart of what our democracy is and what we require of our MPs. What we require may be transient as opposed to constant and change subject to the time and circumstances. Of course there will be things that an MP is privy to that we will never know and frankly we probably don't want or need to know. Whether it is due to issues of national security or arguably economic complexity, there is much that an MP has to be briefed about and make an informed decision over that I have no desire to know the finer detail of.

However, MPs also need to use their role and their knowledge and information wisely and cautiously and always in the national interest. Like a patient trusting their nearest and dearest with power of attorney, there must be that faith that those that ask us to let them represent us and those that we do the honour of granting this request to, act in our collective best interest. It may be reasonable that once they have listened they choose a path we may not have chosen or we do not wholly agree with, but we have to believe that they are acting with integrity and we have to trust that if they are acting against our apparently visible wishes, it is for the best and not out of either a sense of patronising disregard or arrogant, self fulfilment.

That is why I think that the stop the war marches changed everything for a lot of people. Not only did the government apparently ignore wholeheartedly probably the largest public demonstration ever, but in light of the publication of the Chilcot enquiry, there is a feeling amongst some, that the action was taken lacking integrity.

We elect our MPs to take decisions on our behalf. We also elect them to represent us. Therefore, are they our leaders or followers? This is an apparent dichotomy and one that both us and our MP's must wrestle with and negotiate, but crucially, always be mindful of.

The demonstrations held since the UK voted for Brexit have been a further interesting study over our role in decision making, the role of our MP's and our expectations of them. A majority voted to leave the European Union in the referendum on 23rd June. However, many MPs expressed a wish to remain. A significant proportion of the voters wished to remain also, but was the vote to leave a big enough majority to be sufficient to take such a significant step? The demographic split threw up myriad questions not least, why people voted as they did. What were they actually trying to tell their MP? Were over seventeen million people all fundamentally opposed to the single market or free movement or the other associated 'European' elements, or were a significant proportion of the leave voters hacked off with a Westminster system, seemingly unable or maybe, unwilling to look out and see anyone feeling fractured and disenchanted? Was it in reality a protest against the often called 'Westminster elite', the consequences of which are far-reaching and as yet, unknown? Do many of our current MPs possess the skill to understand what is happening in their constituencies, the needs and wants of both 'ins' and 'outs'? Maybe playing politics in Westminster is where they feel more comfortable?

We have a new Prime Minister, Theresa May and for now at least, her Cabinet appears to be in place. Labour are still naval gazing and disagreeing and it looks likely that Owen Smith will join Angela Eagle in challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership. I wonder if Owen Smith, representing Pontypridd, in the South Wales Valleys, an area so effected by the policies of our last female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and from a region so riddled with the protests of the miners' strikes in the 1980's, would he be any more effective at listening and understanding what is happening in some of our communities? I wonder about the backgrounds, skills and abilities of Angela Eagle, Jeremy Corbyn and certainly Theresa May, as she is now our PM not simply an MP?

MPs can make speech after speech about being one nation and working together but until they listen, understand and appear to act with integrity in a way that restores trust and above all, I believe, faith in both them and our democracy, I wonder still further about the protests we have yet to come.