An estimated two thousand people packed Exeter’s Bedford Square on Saturday 31 August to protest against the government’s Brexit policies and its highly controversial decision to prorogue parliament for five weeks from 10 September.
Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw said it was one of the biggest gatherings he had seen in the 23 years he has represented the city, and paid tribute to Conservative MPs prepared to put national interest before party loyalty.
South West MEP Caroline Voaden argued that the European Parliament was far more effective at scrutinising legislation and keeping EU bureaucracy in check than anything that went on at Westminster.
Totnes MP Sarah Wollaston said the final Brexit deal should be put to the people in a referendum and if not, there should be a general election.
Also on the platform were speakers from campaigning organisation Devon for Europe and the trade union movement, a leave voter who had changed his mind about Brexit since the June 2016 referendum, and Phil Bialyk, Leader of Exeter City Council, whose delight at the size of the crowd moved him to plug the renationalisation of the railways.
The demonstration combined two main, but muddled, lines of protest. On the one hand were those whose principal goal is to stop Brexit, or at least a no-deal Brexit. On the other were those protesting against the government’s decision to prorogue parliament for the longest period in more than 40 years. These are very distinct issues: the first a matter of policy, the second an affront to democracy itself.
Most points made in the speeches about Brexit were already familiar, and it was only when speakers touched on constitutional issues that anything new came forward. Mike Finn, a trade union speaker who teaches history at the University of Exeter, reminded the crowd that parliament can play a vital role at times of national emergency, such as when it replaced Chamberlain’s feeble government with the wartime coalition led by Churchill and Attlee.
So what was the protest’s purpose? Exeter city councillor Hannah Packham, one of its organisers, said she saw prorogation of parliament as its focus. Chris Bray of Devon for Europe emphasised opposition to Brexit, including demands for a second vote, though he also recognised the importance of prorogation. Ben Bradshaw simply said it was both.
Demonstrators’ clothing reflected this ambiguity. Those dressed in the vivid blue of the European flag were in stark contrast with the sober dress of the majority, which matched the greyness of the morning and made their allegiances less visible.
The Devon for Europe speaker, both on the platform and in the crowd, enthusiastically waved her flag and led chants of “What do we want? Democracy! When do we want it? Now!” Given that the problem is not that the UK doesn’t have democracy but has a version of it that allows charlatans and extremists to take charge, this may not have been the most appropriate chorus. Not to mention the much-discussed democratic deficit in the EU’s governance structures.
One reason for the mixed messages may have been that the protest had at least two organisers. Exeter Labour Party were responsible for the platform arrangements and Facebook promotion while Another Europe is Possible claims to have co-ordinated the 30 or so rallies that took place around the country on the same day. While this organisation is unambiguously pro-remain, it has extended its scope to cover the current constitutional crisis using the hashtag #StopTheCoup.
Was the protest a vehicle for opponents of Brexit to use the controversy surrounding prorogation of parliament to bolster the anti-Brexit campaign? Or was it an expression of disgust at the government’s contempt for the constitution? Either way, this and similar popular demonstrations do not appear have given ministers much pause for thought.