LONDON: As lawmakers huddled inside the House of Commons on Saturday to debate Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered outside the Palace of Westminster to demand that voters be given the final say on Brexit.
Organisers said the protests drew about one million people, which would make it one of the largest demonstrations in British history.
The stated desire of the marchers was to call for a second referendum on any Brexit deal that lawmakers approve, but most had a more basic goal.
“No Brexit” was the chant that echoed through the stately streets and grand avenues of the city on a crisp and sunny autumn afternoon.
“This is a last-ditch attempt to get them to hear our voices,” said Ollie Lloyd, 42, who was among those protesting. The debate taking place in Parliament, he said, was about more than trade deals and plain economics.
“This is about what kind of country we want to be,” he said: “Do we want to be an open and tolerant country,” or one that is closed off and inward looking?
His father, Gil Lloyd, 68, was handing out anti-Brexit stickers at the march.
Wearing a European Union sweatshirt and wristbands, and a button depicting a man meant to represent Britain shooting himself in the foot, he said it was important to participate in the demonstration even if he was not hopeful that a second referendum would take place.
“I am just horrified at the whole thing,” he said.
Those mixed emotions seemed to capture the spirit of the day — a combination of defiance, determination, exhaustion and resignation.
Yet the mood was largely festive as the march made its way from the triumphal Marble Arch near Hyde Park, through Trafalgar Square, past the many monuments to past days of imperial power, and on to Parliament.
While protesters cheered and jeered outside the building, inside Johnson was making the case to Parliament that it was time for lawmakers to pass “a deal that can heal the rift in British politics” and “unite the warring instincts in our soul.”
He called the deal “the greatest single restoration of national sovereignty in parliamentary history.”
It was the first time the House of Commons had been called into session on a Saturday in nearly four decades, when lawmakers gathered to discuss the war in the Falkland Islands.
In a referendum three years ago, British voters narrowly supported leaving the European Union, which it had joined in 1973.
Since then, the divisions in the country have grown along with feelings of frustration, confusion, sadness and despair.
And public anger.
“The whole thing was sold on a lot of lies,” said Dorothy Milosevic, 63. “Since that morning when we woke up to find that the leavers had won, it is has been gloom and despondency.”
“It is important that our voice is heard,” she added. She had traveled from Oxford with her daughter, Angahard Holloway, 34, and her granddaughter, Eleanor, 12.
Those who would be most affected by Brexit, she said, were the young people. “They simply won’t have the same opportunities I was afforded,” she said.
Even before Saturday, the anger over Brexit had led to some of the largest protests in British history.
The first People’s Vote March, which drew hundreds of thousands people, was held a year ago on the eve of a vote on an agreement put forth by Theresa May, who was then prime minister.
May tried to persuade Parliament to pass her deal three times, and three times failed. Supporters of a people’s vote had hoped that the chaos would help build support for their cause.
But after her resignation, Johnson, a champion of Brexit, won the Conservative Party’s backing to take up residence at No. 10 Downing St. and set about pushing for a swift exit, deal or no deal.
He has steadfastly opposed the idea of another vote, saying that the people have already had their say.
Those who took to the streets on Saturday called that argument flawed.
They say that voters were misled before the referendum and that they should be given a chance to vote on a specific Brexit deal — with the benefit of being informed by years of debate and discussion — rather than the abstract notion of a withdrawal.
The protesters were joined by celebrities, opposition politicians and the former prime ministers Tony Blair, of the Labour Party, and John Major, a Conservative, who united to make a short film that was to be screened at the rally warning about the dangers Brexit posed to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
The organisers of the march, reacting to criticism that their movement was mainly backed by people in wealthy areas, sought to build support outside London and have staged rallies around Britain, including in Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland; in Belfast, Northern Ireland; and in Cheltenham, in southern England
Greg Brown, 41, an engineer from Middlesbrough, said he had made the trek from the northeast of England to show that even in Brexit strongholds like where he lives, opinion is divided.
“I am embarrassed to say that there was a big Leave vote in the north east,” he said. “Europe stands for peace, for multilateral negotiations, workers rights, paternity rights, jobs and free trade.”
“In the three years since the vote,” he said, “I have not yet heard a decent reason for voting Leave, and here we are standing on a cliff edge.”
Since lawmakers decided to delay the vote, it seems Brown, along with millions of others, will have to remain on the cliff’s edge a while longer. - New York Times