As the United Kingdom heads decisively towards the European Union departure lounge, Parliament must not let the people down – says David Price…
A fascinating thing about Britain’s EU referendum vote on June 23rd of last year was the dramatic way that things divided up along demographic and regional lines. London, Bath, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Oxford and York all voted to remain in the European Union, whereas most of the rest of the UK did not. This was clear to anyone out campaigning before the big day – posh, affluent cities tended to be Remain, as did leafy villages in the Shire counties with thatched cottages and moss covered walls. Go to a provincial county town a fair way from London however, and the closer you got to its housing estates, the more likely you’d find Leave voters.
I began Brexit campaigning expecting it to be the political equivalent of door-to-door double glazing selling. I had my Leave badge, clipboard and friendly smile at the ready – along with a pre-prepared spiel about the evils of the EU and the joys of being a sovereign country once again. Yet all too often, I never got the chance to say my piece. Depending on where I was, I often found myself in ‘receive’ mode, rather than ‘transmit’. Indeed, I began to feel that for some voters, I was offering them some form of catharsis – they’d got something on their mind that they wanted to unload, and there I was, ready to share.
Canvassing picture-postcard Wiltshire villages of an afternoon – with green leaves whispering in the trees as spots of warm rain fell – was generally a case of friendly but ultimately pointless conversations with affluent Remainers. Anyone with a Porsche Cayman sat on the immaculately gravelled drive of their million pound sixteenth century cottage, didn’t really want to deliver a punch in the teeth to the establishment. Go to a council estate in the nearest town however, and you were in another world. People would – spotting my Leave badge – come up and shake my hand. White Van Man was always a friendly face. “Good for you mate, give ‘em hell” – or words to that effect – was a regular refrain. Little old ladies would invite me into their lounges, to tell me the trouble that their sons or granddaughters were having with “the Common Market”. It was the same theme again and again – downward pressure on wages, and job instability.
Indeed, the closer I got to deprived areas, the more canvassing became simply the offer of a friendly face, to share people’s woes. Many were obviously very angry – with David Cameron, George Osborne, Jeremy Corbyn and anybody else in a perceived position of power – and wanted to vent their spleens. Few folk knew the intricacies of the EU, and the respective roles of Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk were never discussed. Yet again and again people said, “we’ll never get a chance to leave if we don’t take this one – they’ll lock us in forever.”
Indeed, some actually seemed to be subconsciously asking for ‘permission’ to vote Leave. They had heard on the TV what a bunch of nasty, bigoted little Englanders we all were and didn’t want to vote for ‘that sort of person’. So when our small teams of campaigners showed up on their doorsteps – mixed ages, races, religions and party politics – they often seemed relieved. They’d initially say they were undecided, but two minutes of chatting about everything that was wrong in the world would deliver their firm pledge of an out vote; it was like pushing on an open door. The spectacle of a Chinese-born Leave campaigner – who grew up just a few hundred yards away from Beijing’s infamous Tiananmen Square, and watched the massacre from her balcony window – explaining to middle Englanders that democracy was too precious a thing to lose, brought tears to my eyes. All these thousands of little conversations – millions when taken across a national level – felt like we were making history…
On Wednesday, the House of Commons voted by 498 to 114 to trigger Article 50 – and now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will begin the process of transferring sovereignty back to the people, expressed through our parliament. It’s not a forgone conclusion however, and there are many rivers still to cross. Nevertheless, it’s reassuring that the Labour party and the Conservatives both seem to have soberly reflected that they are our servants and not our masters. The Brexit vote was a seismic moment in UK history, arguably the greatest foreign policy pivot since the end of World War II. The British people have again forced the hand of the establishment – which must constantly be reminded that it isn’t there to ‘consider’, ’debate’ or ‘reflect on’ our collective will – it is there to implement it.