A thousand voices and just as many doubts…

“Referendums are snapshots of sentiment at any given point in time (but they are not the mechanism of government)” – Professor AC Grayling in his letter to all MPs

IT’S been a while since I went on a march. Here is a spot of snapshot reportage from yesterday’s anti-Brexit protest in York, with a few thoughts on referendums.

A thousand people took part, according to police estimates, and as the police traditionally under-count marches, that is an impressive figure. Whatever the headcount, it is fair to say that the march filled St Helen’s Square from end to end and side to side.

It was a good-tempered affair, touched with anxiety about the future. At times some of those who took part in the march were clearly upset at the prospect of leaving Europe, worried about reports of racial aggression, and scared that hatred might spin out of control. There were many calls for unity, and a few heckles from passers-by.

One man kept up a chant of: “You lost, you lost.” Another man, who appeared to have turned up in his underpants, shouted “Immigrants out” as he wobbled by. It takes all sorts of idiot.

A woman was handing out safety pins, that impromptu symbol of support for migrants. I pinned one to my jacket. Does such a symbol make a difference? Hard to say but it felt like a good gesture.

As we set off, the march wound past the queue waiting for Bettys, and that seemed a very York moment, pro-European marchers mingling with tourists waiting to pay over the odds for a Yorkshire spin on European baking.

The march did a slow tramp through York. We were somewhere near the back and couldn’t hear the chanting. It started to rain quite heavily in Coney Street. Back in St Helen’s Square we huddled together under umbrellas. Many people held homemade banners. A couple in front of us had a banner which said “Czech dumplings” – well, that’s what it said on the back – which sounded like an obscure insult. They turned the banner round and it said: “Unite against hateful xenophobic toxic politics.” That made more sense; a sentiment with which it was easy to concur.

When the speeches started up the acoustics defeated the oratory for a while. “We can’t hear you,” people at the back shouted.

York student Sally Sidik was one of those who organised the march and she introduced various speakers, whose name I didn’t catch and whose words were lost. Then someone fixed the megaphone or whatever it was, and the words rang clear.

Two political speakers gave a good account of themselves. The Liberal Democrat James Blanchard said people needed to “take back democracy”, adding: “That is more than just signing an online petition.” His points were mostly non-party political and he made them well.

York Central MP Rachael Maskell accused David Cameron of “playing roulette” with the country’s future to address his own party’s divisions.

A fair point and one I’ve made myself. That doesn’t get round the inconvenient truth that many traditionally Labour-supporting areas voted for Brexit, so the divisions do cross party lines. But it is true that we only had this referendum because Cameron wanted to settle the argument in his own party.

And look where that got us: bitterly divided, anxious, facing an uncertain future – but at least Cameron has gone and Boris Johnson has been snuffed out thanks to the underhand conniving of Michael Gove, now and forever more to be considered as monumentally untrustworthy by many in his party.

With AC Grayling’s wise words in mind, I think the problem is that we are not referendum literate in this country. We don’t really do referendums, so when one is arranged we don’t fully understand what is happening. And a binary choice isn’t good enough for something so long-lasting and potentially devastating as leaving Europe. A simple “yes/no” question cannot answer a thousand complications; it cannot silence a thousand worries. All it can do is boil everything down in a simplistic and irresponsible way.

If we are to have any more referendums, then they should be organised by an independent body which is not tied to the government of the day. A debate should be held in Parliament to decide whether or not a referendum should take place. And it shouldn’t be left to prime ministerial whim.

As the march disbanded, I chatted for a while to Eduardo Niebla, that man of Spain and Yorkshire. Eduardo was worried about the repercussions of the vote to leave and had much of interest to say. And in this guitarist you have a perfect example of why migrants bring so much that is good and beneficial to our country. One example among many, whatever the man in his underpants had to say.


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