A ribbon of blue flags snaked all the way to Parliament Square. Down the other side a protest group of far-right gathered. Their numbers were not that great, insignificant compared to the tide of human mass that had poured through the streets of central London.
Two years to the day of a sobering defeat that sparked Brexit, remnants of the Remain vote assembled on a sun-baked day and mostly shouted and protested. There was no animosity for most part which in fact was quite surprising because this was the first protest that really had a coalition of all the major parties with seats in England at least. Other people came, watched and participated.
My own zealotry for this cause lost a lot of its fire in the past few months, replaced by the reality that rather than trying to fight Brexit we need to imagine a future after it. That itself looks rather bleak. Not least as a socialist trying to imagine how we go about achieving our aims outside the single market which could punch a black hole into the economy. For liberals the single market is treated as an ends to itself. For socialists it must be a means to achieving a fairer and more equal society where the working-class have a genuine stake in the country. Whether Brexit enables that is extremely unlikely.
If you believe the referendum was waged on the terms of immigration then you have to accept at some level it was cultural and not just economic factors that fuelled the Leave vote. It’s correct to argue that a jobs-first Brexit is oxymoronic if single market membership is not maintained but can Britain really preserve that trading status and surrender Freedom of Movement? It’s this which proved decisive for many voters who ticked the Leave box. Cultural anxiety and insecurity against perceived high levels of immigration exist. That it has reached here is a failure on the left to convince struggling communities that their suffering has been authored by Margaret Thatcher’s closing of the industries and severe weakening of trade unions – something that New Labour failed to reverse. It’s the failure of the left to decisively shape the narrative of Britain in the aftermath of the financial crash where immigrants were scapegoated for years in a frenzy of xenophobic scaremongering by newspapers. But at the same time in the age of identity politics where we argue for the rights of ethnic minorities to preserve their cultures, we owe it to the English working-class when they say the sense of community is gone. This is about a question of managing immigration not necessarily in numbers but in the process of integration to ensure that cultures can coexist without social tension.
The Remain vote itself has cut across like an intellectually vacuous movement mentally flattened by the Brexit vote. The pushback against the referendum hasn’t been promises of changes and mistakes learnt but merely renewing a membership with an institution that is simply resented and loathed by millions of working people. Specifically speaking, it’s not wrong to argue for membership of the single market. That is actually fundamental to guaranteeing a safe transition out of the European Union for the country. But the rhetoric and vision of the future envisaged by the Remain vote doesn’t seem to offer anything different to the people who voted Leave. What is it that would make them vote Remain this time?
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying to make it and that reason is why I decided belatedly to attend the march. Britain has slipped into an atmosphere of poisonous insularity and intolerance since Leave triumphed. Racial hate crime has astronomically climbed and minorities have been left in a permanent state of insecurity and fear, made unwelcome by the fascists who have roared in from the fringes into what seems like now the mainstream if you’re a minority. When I arrived at the march I ran into a Britain First supporter and I was reminded of why we shouldn’t stop arguing.
Some on the left criticised the entire protest pointing out that the EU was racist and responsible for the deaths of refugees. But the EU is an institution that reflects European values and culture. If it is the case that migrants are drowning at our doorsteps, it’s because societies like Italy, Hungary and others are racist. Spain are an EU state and they allowed refugees in. When Britain refused to take in our fair share of people seeking refuge, did we blame the EU or the government? The left is trying to appeal to Leave voters by criticising the EU but here it is excusing European white racism for its own ends.
Brexit will be managed better if there is a Labour government but that remains a big if. Companies have threatened and stated they will relocate after Brexit, and attracting them in the future could potentially lead to a bonfire of workers’ rights and environmental protections. Moreover, the world is today a globalised one with mutually shared interests and concerns. Taking on the multinational corporation or climate change required a multilaterally coordinated response, solutions rooted in common interest rather than state individualism. You simply cannot construct socialism within your own borders when there is a whole world out there.
But if the idea of some Remain voters is to return to the days before Brexit without answering the questions then asked, we are simply veering towards more social turmoil.