It is easy to look in despair at the UK’s attempt to negotiate an exit from the EU. The government’s negotiating position is built on a series of red lines which appear mutually exclusive. Deadlines swoosh past, yet parliament seems paralysed, unable to find an acceptable way forward.
Our incompetence is now writ large on the international stage. Yet outside Westminster, things look very different.
Yesterday, as many as one million people joined a peaceful march through central London, calling for a public vote on whether to accept the Brexit outcome negotiated by the UK. That makes this one of the largest, perhaps the single largest public protest in British political history.
At the same time, an online petition calling for the revocation of Article 50 (which would effectively cancel the UK’s exit from the EU), has been signed over five million times.
These are not normal numbers. To give a little context, the 2015 general election saw a turnout of just over 30 million. Even the Poll Tax, which remains one of the most infamous public policy failures of the last century, only led to a protest of 200,000 people.
Nor are these numbers isolated. Other recent anti-Brexit related protests have seen hundreds of thousands of people marching. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s hard to argue that the 200 people walking from Sunderland to London are not atypically committed to their cause. The 2017 general election saw the highest turnout in 20 years.
Politics has gone from being something that a few geeks cared about, to something which animates the nation.
Yes, the nation contradicts itself. Of course, it does. It contains multitudes. But this is not a sign of failure. People will always disagree about things that matter. Such disagreement is healthy. Indeed, as a Liberal, I believe we have a duty to uphold the rights of everyone to disagree about such issues.
The only failure here is rooted in Westminster. In the decision to place party management about the national interest. In boiling down a remarkably complex decision into a binary choice between the status quo and change. And in failing to agree what the change proposition was.
One day, Brexit will be in the past. But there will be millions of people who have learnt how to protest. How to make their voices heard.
A generation will have learnt that politics is not something which happens once every 4 years. They will have learnt that politics is about the choices we all make, each and every day.