About halfway through the March for Leave last Friday, somewhere in Chelsea, an elderly couple of middle-eastern descent, wearing traditional Islamic dress, came out of their house to greet the mass of people striding by their home. They looked joyful, wearing the broad smiles of lottery winners, as they held their hands above their heads and applauded us with gusto. The march in return gave them a round of applause, and a huge cheer. It stuck in my mind as a singularly revealing and important episode, a glorious response to the “all Brexiteers are racists” mantra chanted tirelessly since the referendum of 2016.
I only wish I had had the presence of mind to film it. I could have sent it to the BBC. I wonder if they would have used it?
It was partly to witness moments like this that I joined the March to Leave. I am not naturally drawn to such events, but chose to break the habit of a lifetime from a sense of duty, but also out of personal and journalistic curiosity. I wanted to take advantage of probably the best opportunity there will ever be to analyze the phenomenon of Brexit at close quarters, see for myself what kind of people Brexiteers really are, find out what motivates them, and try to gauge what the impact of the great Brexit betrayal – if such it is, will be on these people, and my country.
To that end, I spent the day on a wholly unscientific data gathering exercise, talking to as many people as I could, and supplementing that by eavesdropping on the conversations that swirled around me as walked with the care and concentration of a Stasi agent. And I took careful note of every makeshift homemade sign, banner and placard.
What follows are no more than impressions, anecdotes and generalizations – drawn from my experience of the official March to Leave, which I followed from Fulham into Whitehall. They are not related to the other gatherings in Parliament Square, where Tommy Robinson et al. held parallel “Make Brexit Happen” events, which I understand had a more sinister tone, and to my mind had nothing to do with Brexit.
But they are the honest, first hand observations from a day spent in the midst of the greatest concentration of Leave voters ever likely to be assembled, an eye-witness report from the belly of the beast, or the heart of a lion – whichever you prefer.
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Firstly, who were the marchers? Well, the most interesting thing I noticed was that the gathering seemed to consist largely of people on their own, couples, or very small parties – no more than 3 or 4. The People’s Vote protest by contrast, attracted far larger groupings, such as whole coach loads; singing specially composed pro-EU/anti-Brexit songs to cheer them on their way.
One Londoner, ‘Ben’ I spoke to seemed typical, and echoed my own sentiments about the day; he told me had come on his own (“I just feel I have to be here”), that it was the first time he had ever joined a political protest (“I’m not a flag waver”), and that he knew precisely no one in his circle who agreed with him.
This strongly supports the theory that the Brexit vote was atomized, consisting of isolated individuals, largely separated from those with similar views, while Remain voters exist in clusters, or networks. Leave is a belief, and Remain is a club? This is a thought-provoking idea, and may help us to understand why winning the vote, and enacting the decision were such totally different propositions.
The Leave marchers I encountered were predominantly English or Welsh I would say, and came from every walk of life, with red cord trousers and tweed jacket wearers mingling with jeans and T-shirts; posh home counties accents heard alongside an earthier regional vernacular; more men than women, but not by much. Party allegiance, save for a few UKIP banners and rosettes here and there was hard to identify, and probably meaningless anyway.
There were very few children. Hardly anyone had brought their kids, unlike the People’s Voters who seemed keen to dress up their offspring in pro-EU outfits and parade them like mascots. This is worth bearing in mind when the numbers present at the two events are calculated and compared.
As to motivation, as the incident with the Muslim couple illustrated, the striking thing was the total absence of references to immigration or control of borders. I didn’t see a single sign that mentioned this supposedly overriding concern. No mention whatsoever. Indeed, apart from one “Hands off our fish” placard, I saw no specific individual Brexit issues referenced at all. Everything was about fundamental principals, with the leitmotifs of the day being the broad concepts of Sovereignty, Freedom, and Democracy.
The prevailing mood among the marchers was one of anger. The marchers to a man/woman were consumed with the simmering fury of someone who believes they have been and are being cheated. This is directed at the EU, of course, but just as strongly at the traditional parties. The names of May, Blair, Corbyn, Kinnock, Clegg, et al, were spat out, without differentiation, and with the same degree of visceral loathing. They are, it seems, all of a piece.
Rage was also directed at the mainstream media, with the BBC coming in for a particularly hard time. It was probably no coincidence that, though I saw a few familiar faces (Cathy Newman was scurrying around all day), I didn’t spot a single representative from our public service broadcaster, at least not in plain sight. “Are you from the BBC?” asked one lady with two homemade placards who’d been asked for an interview, the clear implication being that if the answer was positive not only was the interview off, but the reporter could take a running jump into the nearby Thames. There were almost as many references to the BBC as there were to the EU on the marcher’s banners and signs. Again, all of a piece.
Despite the deep-seated animus and the strident, forthright opinions I was in earshot of all day, I heard nothing that was spitefully abusive. There was hardly even any swearing, except for a small outbreak when a few Remain voters taunted the march from a bridge.
Nor did I hear anything particularly wild, or wholly irrational. Yes, there was plenty of talk of establishment plots, of institutionalized corruption, of coordinated betrayal, but I noticed a real keenness to support arguments with facts. People would quote concrete figures (EU salaries, job losses, tariff rates), dates of treaties were referenced, clause numbers of the “deal”, etc. How much of this was entirely accurate could be disputed, but there was a clear belief in the value of empirical evidence, rather than dreamy aspirational language. I didn’t hear the word “progressive” all day.
Overall, I would describe most people I met on the march as pessimistic about the future. No one seemed to think a true Brexit (and every option apart from No Deal seemed to be regarded as code for Remain) was now likely. Most predicted a watered down deal that would be hardly any better, and could even be worse, than our current status. Some predicted a general election leading to no Brexit, others a revocation.
Most marchers seemed keen for Theresa May to go, but more as punishment for her incompetence and duplicity than out of any hope that a replacement would be any better. It was telling that when news of the defeat of MV3 broke at around 2:30 there was a cheer, but not a full-throated one. It was the kind of noise a losing team’s supporters produce when they score a late consolation goal, to change a 3-0 score line into a 3-1. No more than that.
I took a few things away from this strange, heady day. Some of the memories are now engraved on my mind: the standout, as a representative example of the eccentricity on display, being the moment an antique heraldic trumpet, looking like a long brass vuvuzuela, slowly emerged from between the curtains of a top floor window of a posh block of flats. It blew a one-note fanfare, which provoked a rapturous response. Then, the instrumentalist emerged, a tiny grey haired old woman, who stood unsmiling but with great dignity, at the window. She then proceeded to unfurl a Union Jack, which produced the biggest cheer of the day.
Priceless. Again, why didn’t I film it?
I also brought home a suntan that George Hamilton would be happy with, that I had the surreal experience of first noticing on the BBC news the next morning as I saw myself strolling into Parliament Square. And I gathered up a bag of souvenirs – badges, signs and leaflets, that may be worth something as curios one day; though whether they are valued in Sterling or Euros remains to be seen.
But most importantly, I came away with the depressing realization that there exists in Britain today a constituency of significant size who are now effectively estranged from their politicians, their institutions, and from the mainstream media. The marchers I met seemed like decent, intelligent people, but they are also bitter, and profoundly disillusioned, with the democratic process and the purported integrity of our elected officials.
It feels like an especially poisonous family feud, where things have been said and done that are so egregious that no reconciliation now seems possible.
Something has been broken that can’t be fixed.
That’s not good.
Not good at all.