Brexit tensions play out on steps of UK Supreme Court

Rival protesters trade barbs as country’s judges listen to government’s case on triggering move to leave EU.

Brexit supporters outside the Supreme Court rejected accusations of racism [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]
Brexit supporters outside the Supreme Court rejected accusations of racism [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

London, England – On an overcast and gloomy December afternoon outside Britain’s Supreme Court, a handful of hardened activists on opposing sides of the country’s deepest political divide gathered to protest.

In the building behind them, senior judges listened to lawyers argue whether parliament or government ministers had the legal right to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin the process to leave the EU.

Easily outnumbered by police officers and journalists, about 20 protesters, divided about equally between each camp, tried their best to muster interest from passersby for their respective causes.

The anti-Brexit group, distinguished by their pithy “Brexit is racist” banners and loudspeaker slogans, drew most attention, frequently stopping to explain what they were doing to curious tourists visiting nearby Westminster Abbey. 

Brexit supporters took on a less pronounced approach; no banners or protest chants but instead engaging anyone willing to listen. 

The two groups rarely interacted, except in one tense standoff; an exchange of expletives and accusations of racism.

Bemused onlookers whipped out their smartphones, as police officers took up position ready to intervene, but the angry flare-up quickly subsided.

“I’m here for the theatre of it all,” said one man, who then stuck around the area to listen to the opinions the protesters had to offer.

The Supreme Court will decide who has the formal right to initiate the move to leave the EU [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

While some relished the attention – as was the case with an impromptu burning of the EU flag – for others the steps of the court were the frontline of the battle to stop the subversion of a popular vote.

“I think it’s valid what they’re doing in the legal process,” Brexit voter Glen Marquis said of the proceedings going on behind him.

The media have made out constantly that the people are thick and stupid that they don’t understand the EU.

Glen Marquis, Brexit supporter

“But in a democracy I do not believe at all that anyone can argue that a vote that was cast at the ballot box can be overridden by an ancient document that was never designed to deal with the issue.

“The constitution, which is what they’re discussing, was never designed to discuss entering or exiting the EU, so it’s a complete waste of time.”

The Londoner’s gripe with the EU was centred on two issues: the strain on infrastructure, which he argued was brought about by rapid population growth through immigration, and the idea that politicians were first accountable to the EU before their electorate.

Journalists, he said, had stripped away nuance from the debate and made out that people had voted for Brexit out of base impulses and ignorance.

“The media have made out constantly that the people are thick and stupid, that they don’t understand the EU and don’t necessarily know what the votes are about.

“Everybody understands fully well what they’re doing.”

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As he was speaking, Marquis squirmed at the chants equating Brexit to racism coming from a few metres away. Eventually he pulled his phone from his pocket to show a picture of himself with his Angolan wife and mixed-race daughter.

“I have no problem with anyone from any ethnic origin,” he said, arguing characterisations of the entire Brexit movement as racist were based on a minority and not representative.

“If you judge a majority of people because of a minority then that’s racism, right? But they’re doing that here.”

Most Brexit supporters at the protest were conscious of the charge of racism and ardently rejected the label.

Nonetheless, accusations of racism were plentiful.

The anti-Brexit activists were particularly interested in one man, who was involved in the brief flare-up and they accused of belonging to far-right groups. 

I’ve got no problem with whatever the lefties want to sing here but when they say Brexit is racist, that affects me.

Terry Jenkins, Brexit supporter

Al Jazeera spoke to the man, who identified himself as Terry Jenkins, a lifelong resident of the East End of London, and with an accent to vouch for it. 

“They’re accusing me of being a racist and I’m not a racist,” Jenkins said, adding he was at the court to “respect the democratic processes” of the country.

“I’ve got no problem with whatever the lefties want to sing here but when they say Brexit is racist, that affects me.”

The conversation revealed no explicit racist language but instead concern about strained economic resources mixed with unproven claims that recent immigrants were receiving preferential treatment.

Still, Jenkins insisted he had no problem with any particular religion or ethnic group.

“We’ve had immigrants come into this country for many years and we never had a problem with it but now we’re overrun with it and unless we can control it, it will swamp us.

“I can’t get social housing, your kids couldn’t get social housing, and everybody born in this country is at the back of the list for social housing.”

‘Short cut to blame immigration’

Such concerns about social resources appeared in conversations with activists on both sides of the divide.

Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the onset of austerity policies brought in by the Conservative government, vulnerable Britons have found it more difficult to access the services they need to get by.

Millions of people in the country are on social housing waiting lists, priced out of the private housing markets by ever-rising prices and increasing rents, and the National Health Service is struggling with increasing demand for healthcare and shrinking budgets.

Where the opposing activists differ is on the cause.

Antonia Bright, an anti-Brexit activist, said it was government policies that had created economic strains and not immigration.

“People have very insecure working lives right now,” Bright said

“Wages have stagnated, healthcare is in crisis, and rather than actually deal with government policies that have led to that, there’s a shortcut to just blame immigration for it instead.”

Glancing over at the pro-Brexit grouping, she said the government had created conditions for the far-right to thrive.

“They are fascists, they feel a victory from Brexit because they see how they can use it to build more of their programme.

“That’s not to say everybody who voted for Brexit intends that, but the reality is this is where we’re at.”

Anti-Brexit activists outside the Supreme Court [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera


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