It is a measure of how far we have travelled that the sudden, silent pressing of 22 naked buttocks against the window of the public gallery of the House of Commons felt like a moment of serenity.
The first reactions to this scene, unfolding in slow motion above the Commons chamber, were almost quizzical. Ed Miliband appeared to do no more than raise an eyebrow, to acknowledge the increasingly unignorable reality that, here in the heart of the mother of parliaments, at this defining hour of history, were 11 naked men and women, each with their backsides mashed on to the glass, a flat panorama of squashed humanity, marked with unreadable protest slogans and vanishing undercrackers.
It was the silence that did it, the eerie calm. No noise penetrates that glass, so even the wildest of commotions unfold like those climactic movie scenes in which heroes perish in slow motion beneath the sound of soft strings. It almost felt like it was happening underwater, their sheer pink flesh appearing suddenly from nowhere, like a family of giant turtles before a startled scuba diver, gliding serenely towards the shimmering sunlight.
At the moment it began, a Labour MP called Peter Kyle had been muttering something about the customs union. Or was it the single market? It might have been the backstop. Who even cares any more? Nothing of any interest whatsoever has been uttered in that chamber for at least two years. There is nothing left unsaid, no angle unworked, no debating point that has not been sanded away to nothing by Brexit’s dreary tides.
There was a gentle commotion, eventually. Members did their best to carry on as normal. Mike Gapes interrupted to make a point of order. Something to do with the 2016 referendum being advisory, I think. If it wasn’t that, it can only have been another one of the approximately nine salient points about Brexit that have been repeated, ad infinitum, for three long dismal years.
They were a work of art, up there, the Flat Arse society. This was humanity, turning its soft, inscrutable face towards its torturer, begging to be noticed, begging to be saved. Quite literally, in fact. The protest had nothing at all to do with Brexit. The people were from Extinction Rebellion, a climate change direct action group.
The world is burning, and powerful people are too consumed with their petty squabbles to do anything about it. And here they were, too consumed by their petty squabbles to do anything about it.
Even the police could scarcely be bothered to puncture the slow spell of the moment. By the House of Commons clock, it was eight minutes before even the first arse was peeled away. A policeman appeared to be going at one with a small spray. In a later statement, we learned that a number of the eleven had come with superglue, and had actually adhered themselves aggressively to the glass, their liberation requiring the application of a special solvent that the authorities, miraculously, had to hand. Occasionally, in free societies and through institutions of this nature, the people must be forced to be free, once wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, though it is questionable whether this is quite what he had in mind.
Hours after the protesters had been sent on their polite, denuded way, an MP called Ed Vaizey was going through the dreadful motions of the legitimacy of no-deal Brexit as conferred by the people through the 2016 referendum, and more police arrived in the public gallery again. They were, I have been told, gathering “evidence” – recording, for posterity, the vaporous shapes of the buttock marks against the window.
There was Mr Vaizey, laying the full weight of his own personal gravity down upon this moment of great crisis, and there, clear in his vision, were bored police officers taking snaps of damp arse prints before they narrowed to nothing.
At half past 10, history, if it can be bothered, will record that the House of Commons voted, yet again, to reject every single version of Brexit that was put before it. No to the customs union, no to “Common Market 2.0” (whatever that is), no to a second referendum, no to revoking Article 50, no the past, no the present, no to the future.
When the results were read out, Nick Boles, he of Common Market 2.0, rose to his feet. With his voice cracking, he left his party.
High drama, but too late. All that had been worth saying had been said hours before, in total silence, when 11 ordinary men and women turned to show their backsides to the whole sorry spectacle.
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