Looking back: The day Brexit didn’t happen

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This time last year, we were not where we had expected to be … in more ways than one!

Friday 29 March 2019 was meant to be the day Britain left the EU. Theresa May hoped this would happen as a result of Parliament passing the Withdrawal Agreement she had negotiated. Many in her party hoped it would happen with no deal at all. In reality, 29 March became the day that the House of Commons rejected the Prime Minister’s plan for a third time, by 344 votes to 286.

The stakes were high. In the preceding days, Parliament had debated eight alternative ways forward and had rejected all of them. Theresa May was threatening to resign if her deal was voted down again. And it was uncertain until the final moment whether the Speaker would allow MPs to vote at all on a package they had already rejected.

Looking back, it is hard to believe that these dramatic events were taking place only one year ago. At the time, an air of unreality surrounded Westminster – not only because of the spectacle inside Parliament but also what was happening outside it. The streets were being taken over by ever growing vigils of anti- and pro-Brexit campaigners, not to mention Extinction Rebellion and others. At one point MPs debated the Brexit crisis overlooked by naked climate protestors in the public gallery, who were busy fixing themselves to the protective glass with adhesive.

If that wasn’t already surreal enough, something else odd and unexpected was happening for the two of us who run this blog …

On 29 March 2019 we were in Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg, home to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. And what we were looking at was a ragtag collection of protest paraphernalia, which the gallery had transported to Denmark from our London flat. Objects we had accumulated over the last few years were to be part of an exhibition on identity and values, marking the year’s European elections.

It had all begun in 2016, just nine days after the EU referendum. We had campaigned hard for a vote to Remain and were obviously devastated by the result. And on 2 July we joined several thousand others in the first march against Brexit to show how we felt about it. More marches followed. We were there, sharing photographs and we began to receive ever more messages from family and friends who wanted to join in.

And so a new tradition was born. We would provide a rendezvous point with coffee, breakfast, stickers, flags and placards, and friends who may have been thinking about protesting – but perhaps had never been on a march before – came to try it out. On those long days of waiting and marching together, rain or shine, new friendships were forged and old ones deepened. The mood was positive, at times celebratory, and we’d all look forward the next time we would meet up and do it all over again.

Every time our friendly little group grew larger. And so too did the events we were taking part in. 25 March 2017 marked the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. One hundred thousand pro-Europeans marched in London. That was followed by the 2017 general election, a watershed moment when Mrs. May’s Brexit plans were rejected and it became mainstream to discuss putting the way forward to a fresh vote. The first People’s Vote March in June 2018 topped 100,000 people. Four months later the March for the Future attracted over half a million. And so it continued through 2019.

Looking back, did it make a difference?

Well, we always told people our aims were to delay, dilute and derail Brexit. Ultimately, we were not able to derail it. But we can definitely say that the massive grassroots action we were part of did delay Brexit. It empowered politicians to question populist narratives about the ‘will of the people’, and gave them the confidence to pass a law preventing a damaging No Deal Brexit in 2019. It sent a message to the government, political parties, the media and the rest of Europe that anti-EU policies are not an easy route to popularity. The people fight back. And given time that may result in a more diluted version of Brexit than might otherwise have been the case.

But putting to one side the politics of the Brexit process, it is the personal memories that count and will stay with us. Like the exhibition in the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, these days of protest were about identity and values. We will always remember what it feels like when people of all different ages, backgrounds and nationalities are inspired to take action together – motivated not by anger, but by a spirit of belonging and working together for a better way of living.

In the months and years to come, we may find we need to tap into that spirit once again.

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