It’s the festive season, which means Britain’s theatres are being taken over by pantomime. And nowhere more so than at London’s Leicester Square Theatre, where next week a man will take to the stage in a ridiculous outfit – that will be John Bercow in his old speaker’s robes – cartoon bad guys like David Davis and Claire Fox will inspire boos and hisses and the audience will decide whether it’s time for Brexit to be reversed. Oh yes it is!
The show is The Ayes Have It! The Ayes Have It!, a public debate on Britain’s future in Europe, chaired by Bercow and organised by Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, a former SNP MP now of Alex Salmond’s Alba Party. It moves to London following a successful 10-day stint at this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe and sees broadcaster Andrew Marr, campaigner Gina Miller and Salmond himself face off against Davis, Brexit-backing peer Fox and Talk TV shock-jock Mike Graham on the motion “Brexit has been a disaster and now must be reversed”.
“People were feeling increasingly unable to state their views publicly, or enjoy freedoms or expression that we had enjoyed for many years, and politics was getting quite a bad name for being a platform to do so,” says Ahmed-Sheikh on the show’s genesis as we talk over Zoom.
“I thought it would be a very good idea to use the bastion of free speech which is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to bring together politicians across the political divide to demonstrate to a live audience that it is possible to have robust and be friends afterwards – it’s possible to air arguments and be challenged by opponents in an open forum, and by the audience, and also to include young people in these events.”
The Edinburgh shows debated issues such as Scottish independence and the future of the monarchy, but “one issue that needs to be debated is the European one”, she says. The topic was extended to the rejoin question “not just that Brexit is a disaster because I think, you know, you’d have to have two heads not to think that it is, but that it should be reversed, so it’s a positive call to action in the other direction.”
The audience in Edinburgh was “quite raucous and boisterous”, she says, and, given the Fringe’s liberal reputation, adds: “David Davis said that he was kind of parachuted into enemy territory every day of the debates, but nonetheless met a crowd that in some debates was 90% pro-Alex’s arguments, but on other days they swung in the other direction towards David’s arguments.
“David and Alex, when I brought the idea to them for the festival, weren’t sure it was going to work, but it did.” (Graham, meanwhile, “provides entertainment because he manages to alienate vast majorities of the audience by simply being quite objectionable throughout, but that has its own merits”.)
Miller, who now leads the True and Fair Party, says she is taking part in the debate because of that motion, “Brexit has been a disaster and now must be reversed”. Also speaking via Zoom, she says: “That’s my position and our position as a party. We are the only political party with that proposition at the moment. All the others are shying away from having this debate and actually saying ‘it is time to start on the road to rejoin’, so it’s very much the debate that we want to have.
“When it comes specifically to Brexit, people are still very afraid to have this conversation out in the open, or this debate out in the open, because it’s become so divisive. But people need to have the space and an atmosphere in which they can have that debate, one where it is civilised but also in a way almost entertaining, which is why this format really appealed to me.
“Remember, there are lots of people who are feeling very emotional about this. You know, it’s not just about facts and figures – oddly, it wasn’t about facts and figures in the debate in the referendum, it was about emotion. And the effects of what’s happening to our country is also emotional. People are feeling very, very angry, lost, whatever the range of emotions.”
She rejects the argument, made by some – not, naturally, New European readers – that the Brexit argument has been resolved and it is time to move on.
“Actually, if you strip out the over-65s, the number of people who want to debate this and actually want to rejoin or have a debate on the road to rejoin is in the high 70 per cents. And that is significant,” she says.
“There is a huge disappointment as to why the main political parties are not debating about this, because actually people understand that we need to be closer, we need to be trading with our nearest and biggest partners. Young people want freedom of travel. You know, quietly and behind the scenes there are lots of people saying they won’t stay here, they’re going because they haven’t got the same access. We don’t have the staff in care homes and in the NHS. We can’t retain people in the restaurant trade. It is everywhere. There is nowhere that’s escaped.
“And actually what is quite significant is if you go somewhere like Grimsby which is a place, you know, which was very much for Leave, actually the fishing industry has been decimated. And they are now so angry and regretful, and they feel, you know, ‘we were promised things were going to be different and they’re not different’.”
The Grimsby point is an interesting one, I note. Why stage this event at the Edinburgh Fringe and central London, where the audience is likely to be already receptive to anti-Brexit arguments? Wouldn’t it be more useful to take it to theatres across the so-called Red Wall?
“The plan is to take it on tour across the country, particularly this specific debate,” says Ahmed-Sheikh (who, it would be wrong not to record, produced and regularly co-hosted Salmond’s show on RT until it was taken off air following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).
“As Gina quite rightly says, those who don’t want to discuss it are those it is most inconvenient to either speak to the lies that were told to the public across the whole of the United Kingdom, and we can’t allow that not to be discussed. Why, indeed, should we? So the idea is to bring it across the country.”
And the organisers are unabashed about the fact that the show is entertaining – hence Bercow sporting his robes and presumably shouting ‘Order!’ a lot.
“There are so many politicians now that nobody knows who they are,” says Ahmed-Sheikh.
“There used to be a time when you could name the cabinet, the shadow cabinet and understand who the main players are, but one, they’re ever-changing, including the prime minister, but secondly people are not engaged in politics.”
The Ayes Have It! The Ayes Have It! Is at London’s Leicester Square Theatre on November 21. Tickets are available at https://www.leicestersquaretheatre.com/show/the-ayes-have-it-the-ayes-have-it/