Try and picture what a march of Brexit supporters would look like in central London, asks Andy Stowe. You immediately get images of portly men dressed in John Bull outfits, Farage gurning in front of the cameras, English and British flags, homemade placards with slogans about WW2 and not so subtle allusions to controlling borders. It would be a Glastonbury for racist English nationalism.
The Unite for Europe demonstration through central London on March 25th certainly had aspects that showed it wasn’t organised by socialists. The organisers’ homepage is decorated with two strips of European Union (EU) and British flags, the liberal way of showing that British people want o be part of the EU. Speakers at the closing rally included former Lib Dem leader and Tory glove puppet Nick Clegg, current Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, someone offering the ex-pat perspective (ex-pat being the correct term for a British person who’s an economic migrant in another country) and Blarite Rottweiler Alistair Campbell.
Almost immediately after the Brexit referendum result was announced there was a large, young and angry demonstration against the result. Those people were largely absent on March 25th. Press estimates of the size range from 25-100 000 but they tended to be older and more affluent. The young Europeans who keep the service industries of London running didn’t turn up. Supporters of Socialist Resistance who were distributing postcards advertising this year’s Fourth International Youth Camp remarked that it sometimes took a few minutes to find someone young enough to hand one to.
However, the demonstration was unequivocally progressive. British flags were substantially outnumbered by that of the EU. The people carrying them were making a statement that they rejected reactionary British nationalism and wanted to identify themselves as citizens of Europe. The home made placards they carried spoke of freedom of movement and being able to work in any EU state. It was a partial rejection of national borders. Coming only three days after an attack by a reactionary terrorist who murdered three people and injured at least fifty, the march was, in an unassuming way, an assertion of the power of mass action by people who want to engage in politics.
Most of the marchers gave the impression that they had no criticisms of the EU. I saw no condemnations of its shameful deal with Turkey to prevent the movement of migrants or the rejection of the will of the Greek people. This of course is not the view of Socialist Resistance and others on the radical left who opposed Brexit. We argued that it’s a supra-national authority which has imposed austerity on the European working class and has reduced most Greeks to utter penury. Our reason for opposing Brexit was that we knew it could only be achieved by a massive xenophobic chauvinist campaign dominated completely by the right. The London demonstration was a rejection of that tidal wave of xenophobia and racism.
Politically the big winners on the day were they Liberal Democrats and they can expect to regain some lost ground by their stance on Brexit. Their membership turned out in strength distributing stickers, carrying placards and setting the tone for the day. A handful of Labour Party banners could be seen but the party had made the mistake of not mobilising for the event and there was no evidence of any organised trade union presence.
Brexit has shifted British politics to the right in a way we haven’t seen since the election of the Thatcher government. The Tories are now pushing through UKIP’s programme and the Labour Party’s response has not appeared coherent to many of its supporters. The Lib Dems threw down a gauntlet to the radical left, the unions and the Labour Party that our side needs to be the one defending freedom of movement, resisting Tory inspired xenophobia and protecting migrants. The Another Europe is possible conference in Manchester next weekend will be an Important place to discuss how best to meet that challenge.