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College Green – The raging crucible of Brexit

Journalists gather around media tents on College Green. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

BONNIE GREER takes us on a trip to College Green to see what it has become since Brexit.

Anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray stands with placards with anti-Brexit slogans near the mobile studios of media broadcasters on College Green. Picture: Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) – Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Before Brexit heated up, you could walk across College Green, the small parkland in central London.

It was a good place to be and oddly British. It was British because, without making a big thing of it, there was green space. It was open, and right in front of you.

You could take pictures there, even go barefoot in good weather. Off to the side of College Green is what the Green is named after: the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster, or, as we know it, Westminster Abbey. There has been a church at this site since the 7th century. And on the other side of the Green is the Palace Of Westminster, the 19th century Gothic-revival edifice which houses the legislature.

Not long ago, it was possible to walk, in relative tranquillity, from the Green and into the Abbey where William the Conqueror was crowned.

Reporters are seen at the media centre in College Green outside Houses of Parliament. Picture: Dinendra Haria – Credit: LightRocket via Getty Images

And afterwards you could cross the Green, then the road, and, if you could get past security, into the Great Hall in that Palace of Westminster. The Great Hall that his son, William Rufus built.

Maybe only an immigrant, a person born and bred somewhere else, can feel the anomaly of this: that the people, over the centuries, wrested control from the monarch – represented by the Abbey. And the monarch now resides within the power of parliament itself, while the person of the monarch is forever calm. Defeated.

Because of that triumph, it is always so strange to hear someone call for the Queen to be in charge, for the Queen to take over. That ancient Abbey, and across from it that Parliament, represent opposing things and those things sit together. This is a form of genius.

College Green was a kind of benign demarcation, a bulwark against any notion that the nation would crawl back to those times when the word of a monarch could cut off a head. Or destroy a family. Or demolish an entire religious infrastructure that also was the repository of any charity the poor may have had. No one person can ever do that again in Great Britain, and yet the nostalgia, the invented nostalgia, largely created in the 19th century, lures many into a false yearning.

It was possible, before Brexit, to even sit on College Green and think about all these things and marvel, as immigrants often do, at Britain itself. At how beautifully and successfully all of the elements of modernity and nostalgia, the future and the past, are mediated and balanced and lived.

I am a Londoner, a central Londoner, and not someone from Loughborough, for example, who would see it all very differently. I respect that. But for me, a former New Yorker, the UK was kind of a miracle of national balancing. And so College Green, tiny as it is, as disruptive as it was in the midst of the hustle and bustle around it, was a kind of representative of that thing that seems to be lost.

These days, only the media are allowed on the Green, along with those of us who journalists call ‘talkers’, the pundits who appear on the media. There are barricades and identity checks and it all feels like what Checkpoint Charlie must have been like during the bad old days of East and West Berlin.

The grass has been trampled on and rendered patchy and a dirty-looking greenish brown. There are tents like something out of a 1950s B-movie about the Korean War. The BBC has built a tower, maybe to avoid its haters, and there are people walking around with phones glued to their ears and a glazed expression on their faces.

All of the journalists know one another. The UK media is a big job mart in which everyone has worked with everyone else at some time or another. On the other side of the barriers that now ring the Green are the passionate, the committed and the enraged.

The passionate are embodied in the guy who yells in a light baritone and a steady beat ‘Stop Brexit!’. He has been there most days for months. Sometimes he is joined by the committed – those who support Remain and wave EU flags and the Union Jack together. They are sunny and upbeat and optimistic.

Then there are the enraged, mainly male, mainly interested in picking a fight. They hate the journalists, too, and I suppose the BBC had to go up higher to get out of their range.

It is important, of course, for all of the networks to have the Palace Of Westminster somewhere in the background of a shot. To guarantee that the viewers do not think that the entire mad thing is an illusion.

It seems to be perpetually cloudy now on the Green, even when there is sun.

It is easy to castigate Members of Parliament, as the prime minister herself has been. But I cannot believe that most of them ran for parliament to be recalcitrants. This could be naivety on my part, but I just think that most people go into politics to help people and to effect change, however they and their constituents define it.

Those people we have elected to represent us, those parliamentary descendants of the people who cut off the head of a king in order to assert the ‘will of the people’, are, I believe, doing their very best.

Set aside the handful of incompetents, charlatans, wreckers and malcontents, most are doing what they can with the political equivalent of a dumpster fire. None of them can want to be members of the parliament that broke Britain. But they may be. And that is the scary part now.

There is talk that we may face three public votes this year: if the government needs more time for Brexit and parliament agrees, then we ask the EU for an extension past May. If that happens the nation must fight the European elections, because no nation can take laws that its representatives did not legislate. There may also be a People’s Vote on the final deal. Even though there is no majority for this, it is still possible. And there is also the prospect of a general election, the ultimate and literal House-cleaner that could bring a new governing party and a new day.

But the question is this: like so many electorates now, so many populations all over: we may not believe that an elected body, an elected assembly, is the answer. This is the real and present danger.

Whatever happens, this great nation’s reputation for sanity and steady-as-she-goes is dead. If American late-night comedians and cable news networks can make fun of the UK, then Britain is in trouble. A trouble it may never recover from, no matter the outcome of Brexit.

That so few in the public arena, even in the House, seem to be able to do anything about this grave reputational damage is bewildering. Like any business, family, anything, reputation is all.

Maybe only a foreigner, an immigrant, can have the space to think fully about this. Maybe it takes being an outsider, a ‘stranger’ – the English translation of the French word for ‘immigrant’ – that makes it possible to see what is lost and what is being lost.

This country has survived much and will survive whatever happens regarding Brexit. But survival is not enough.

To see where we are right now, visit College Green.

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