The People’s Vote march on Saturday is reported by organisers to have reached one million. Flags filled the sky and chants ricocheted off the walls of the capital, but beyond the regular waves of noise that seemed to come from miles away, for the marchers themselves there was no way of knowing whether there were one million or one thousand people amongst them.
The difference is important, however. The Brexit debate has become chock-a-block full of numbers and dates and British democracy is currently based on percentages of such fragility that winners are defensive and losers see potential victory; neither side views results as definitive. This does not automatically mean that democracy is failing; to quote David Davies:
‘if a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy’.
Saturday’s marchers knew the importance of the numbers. The question on everyone’s lips (and phones) was: how many people had signed the petition to revoke Article 50? Two million, three million … but not quite the 17.4 million Andrea Leadsom has asked for. Numbers have become emotional tools to be weaponised but have conversely ceased to have any meaning beyond symbolic statements. A petition with five million signatures is being given no more recognition than a petition with 100,000 and a government defeat of 230 votes is being brushed over as though it was a close call, but a referendum victory of 4 per cent is being heralded as an overwhelming majority. In a political system reliant on precedent, does this mean all future petitions will have to reach six million to be taken seriously? Will future governments be able to continue even after numerous historic defeats?
These numbers are important, if not in themselves then in what they signify. Five million signatures on a petition is a huge statement, and it is a statement of desperate defiance. All but the most extreme Leave voters recognise that the current political chaos is not what was promised three years ago, and as much as Brexiteers would like it to have provided a mandate for a hard Brexit, the referendum ultimately represented a nation divided. Perhaps Brexit should not have been a referendum issue — a brief, painful listen to Prime Minister’s Questions makes it clear that the Westminster bubble does not have a clue what is going to happen next, and so it is quite a stretch to suggest the wider public would have a better grasp on Brexit’s complexities. But a referendum was held, and in that moment direct power transitioned from the politicians to the people. The former cannot expect to wrestle that power back as and when they choose.
Leave voters argue that the referendum result should be respected, that democracy is not simply voting until the result changes to the desired outcome. Signs at the march proclaiming that May ‘is not on our side’, that Brexit was ‘sold on lies’ are the signs of a frustrated, angry minority. They are the unfortunate byproduct of democracy. It is a solid argument, and if May had stopped after the first meaningful vote, and had not vented her frustrations from a podium, it might hold more sway. But the people I spoke to at the People’s Vote march do not have podiums, they cannot put their vote again and again to MPs. All they can do is march and ask — rightly and sincerely — why a second referendum has been deemed anti-democratic given the political whirlwind that has occurred since 2016. Three years ago, the electorate was promised by Michael Gove that ‘the day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want’. To continue his analogy, if the referendum was the start of the card game, we’re all out of moves. The situation has changed — this game is over, and all we are left with is placards.
In the Oxford English Dictionary, the origins of the word ‘democracy’ are found in the Greek terms dēmos meaning ‘the people’ and –kratia meaning ‘power, rule’. The referendum fulfilled this definition, however misguided its application. The march on Saturday fulfilled this definition. We should take pride in the fact that Joe, aged 10, and Sarah, aged 67, can march side by side against their government. A second referendum would also fulfil this definition. In a free, democratic society, a vote is an exertion of power, of the people’s power. Politicians surrendered that power to solve their own problems, and they cannot take it back as and when they choose. Actions have consequences. Five million signatures suggest the people and their placards have realised that, even if Gove and Johnson have not.