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For Brexit protesters, a larger issue is at stake: democracy

Thousands of people took to the streets across major British cities, including London, to protest the suspension of the Parliament by Prime Minister Boris Johnson ahead of the October 31 Brexit deadline. Frank Langfitt, NPR correspondent and author of “The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China," joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the situation in the U.K.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The United Kingdom is counting down to Brexit — their exit from the European Union. With parliament facing suspension, court cases in the works and protests like today's likely to continue, National Public Radio correspondent Frank Langfitt joins us now via Skype from London for more on this developing story.

    The protests that we're seeing seem to be growing and they seem to be not just limited to London anymore.

  • Frank Langfitt:

    No, we saw them in Glasgow, in Oxford, Liverpool, other cities around the country. They weren't that big today, and I think as we get closer to the October 31st date when there could be, the country could crash out of the EU with no deal at all, I think you'll see them grow.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This isn't just the people who are well, I guess, in the opposition party who are pushing back at what Boris Johnson did. Over the past couple of days we've seen members, current members of the Conservative Party as well as previous ones.

  • Frank Langfitt:

    You do and I think you have rebel members of the Tory party who also object to this, and then a lot of the objection is to the principle. We have a parliament that's sitting here. Boris Johnson is maybe going to give them as little as five days to come back and try to mount a way of stopping him from taking the country out with no deal. The majority of the parliament is against this, they're on record being against this.

    So the idea that Boris Johnson is trying to curtail their time in power really strikes, it's a much bigger issue than just Brexit. It really strikes — many people feel the representative nature of the democracy in the country.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now it's similar to the United States. You've got people who support this, it's a very sort of divided or a divisive issue. You went out to kind of what's called the Midlands, what we might think of as the red states, people who support leaving the European Union, right?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Absolutely right. Yeah, it's really Brexit country, and I got to say Hari, it's like having a parallel conversation, like in a different country. When I was up in a town called Boston, for which Boston, Massachusetts is named, what everybody was telling me, this has been going on for more than three years, we feel that these anti-Brexit members of parliament are trying to defy the results of the 2016 referendum, and they say they're the ones who are being anti-democratic, not us. So people are looking at this issue right now through completely different lenses in this country.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So their frustration out in the Midlands against their parliament who's not getting anything done, sounds a lot like some of the frustration that members of citizens of the United States have with Congress not getting anything done.

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Absolutely. And I think that you see there's a paralysis. There's been a paralysis on Capitol Hill. I mean to some degree, for quite some time, you're really seeing in the last three years here in the United Kingdom. The other thing is people today who are going to London I talked to also make comparisons about how Boris Johnson is the prime minister, is violating the norms in their opinion of UK democracy.

    And of course, we've been hearing for the last two and a half years in the United States about Donald Trump doing the same thing in the United States really affecting and not following the norms as they've been followed for many many decades in the States.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So if you have been a British citizen in favor of leaving the European Union, at this point do you overlook the tactics in which Boris Johnson is using?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    I think you're dead on. What I was hearing up in the Midlands just a couple of days ago is people who were looking past those norms and they were saying this has gone on too long, I just want to see Johnson end this and move out and get the country out of the EU.

    What's really interesting Hari is to talk to business people who know that this is going to hurt their business, particularly up there they rely on agriculture workers from Eastern Europe, they're already feeling the pain. But for them, they want out of the European Union, and they want someone to do it for it. And they think Johnson is going to be their guy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK. While this all happens, what's actually happening on this sort of U.K. government to EU level? Boris Johnson says he's working behind the scenes to try to get this going. Is there any possibility that in five days of debate they could come to some resolution or even before that a deal could be left?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    I think there is great skepticism about that. While Boris Johnson has been saying one thing, what we're hearing out of Brussels is there's nothing new on the table and remember what Brussels has been saying all along is we have to preserve an open border on the island of Ireland. That does not work for the United Kingdom. They feel that they're going to end up having Northern Ireland too closely aligned with the E.U. afterwards it would be like they're not even leaving the EU. And that's just been sort of a Gordian Knot for both sides.

    So the other thing is what is the likelihood that Johnson can get this done in six weeks when it took three years and Theresa May failed, the former prime minister. So I think people are very skeptical that he's going to be able to come out quickly, be able to turn this all around and do something that his predecessor was unable to.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt joining us via Skype from London tonight. Thanks so much.

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Happy to do it, Hari

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