On Saturday 23 June, an impressive crowd of pro-Europeans from all parts of the UK came to London to march for a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal. A loud protest, imaginative signs and garments, and worldwide media coverage. (I got quoted by the Australian public broadcaster, among others.) Most media reported a turnout of more than 100,000.
On Friday 13 July, London’s streets were flooded with protesters again. Donald Trump was visiting the UK, and rather spontaneous marches followed him not only in London, but also in other cities such as Edinburgh (where I attended the demonstration). It was a weekday, but around 250,000 people turned up to protest in London only. A crowdfunded Trump baby blimp flew in the skies of London and later Edinburgh.
Of course, Brexit has been going on for more than two years now, and there is a strong, mobilised grassroots movement that has successfully crowdfunded numerous projects over the past two years. Trump only visited the UK for a few days, so if you ever wanted to protest Trump in the UK, that was your chance. However, when comparing the People’s Vote march, well-prepared by a professional campaign headquarters, and the Trump march, for which there was a much shorter notice, one can reasonably conclude that British people care more about Trump than they care about Brexit.
In the heights of the Brexit turmoil, why does a well-planned Brexit protest gather a crowd less than half the size of a spontaneous Trump protest? Why do British people seem to care more about the actions of a foreign president than about their own futures?
Passionate about pussy-grabbing or parliamentary procedure?
Apart from Brexit fatigue, one reason is that Donald Trump unmistakably stands against a broad range of values that Western societies are built on. If you’re for a scientific worldview, you can be motivated to march because Trump walked out of the Paris Agreement, or because of his administration’s fondness of ‘alternative facts’. If you’re for gender equality, you can march because of that “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape. If you’re against racism, you can bring a Mexican flag to the march, as many did.
Meanwhile, Brexit probably has racism to it, but it depends on whether you think of Nigel Farage’s “breaking point” poster or of a more ‘moderate’ pro-Brexit campaign. If Brexit happens, the environment will probably suffer, but no politician has explicitly backed environmental destruction. Maybe the same goes for women’s rights. Brexit is the British Trump, but – perhaps because it’s the European edition – it’s not shouting and carrying an assault rifle. If Brexit plans to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, it’s not announcing the plan beforehand. In Britain, you won’t protest before your local beach stinks, or before your Polish colleague is actually deported, and by then it’s already too late.
With Brexit, what you talk about is parliamentary amendments, the Customs Union, and a referendum on the Brexit deal. Following Brexit requires somewhat in-depth knowledge of politics. In the meantime, observing Trump passes for twisted entertainment. It’s easier to outragedly share a story of Trump mocking a disabled journalist than it is to share a BBC News update of a Jacob Rees-Mogg-sponsored amendment to the Trade Bill passing – despite the fact that the latter story is the one that may directly influence life in the UK. Brexit can make for supreme reality TV, but only if you’re a politics geek.
Even politics can be real
Mistrust towards politicians is often cited as a catalyst for the success of anti-establishment movements in the Western world. However, in Western Europe at least, perhaps we have grown used to the idea that whoever is in government, they probably won’t destroy our lives, at least as long as we’re healthy and middle-class. Our politicians maintain a facade of credibility, and good manners are still usually expected. However, you don’t always need to be an unhinged Rodrigo Duterte to reduce ordinary people’s life quality.
Likewise, it was easy to go protest the Iraq War, as images of death and violence were combined with a sense of unjust deception by the Prime Minister. A brutal, unjust war and a walking outrage are undoubtedly worth protesting. However, sometimes even “normal politics” can be so real that it’s worth going out to the city centre. A hundred thousand Brits agreed on June 23. Maybe on October 20, the number will be even bigger than that.
The People’s Vote March for the Future on 20 October will be the next UK-wide march organised by the British pro-European movement. It will take place in central London.
This text was originally published as an article on The New Federalist. You can find the original at https://www.thenewfederalist.eu/why-do-brits-care-more-about-trump-than-about-brexit.