Parliament Square was rammed by lunchtime on Saturday. Whistles tooted. Blue flags fluttered in the breeze. An entrepreneur outside Westminster tube station was selling ‘Dump on Trump’ loo paper for £3 a roll. Many Remainers were draped in EU flags. Others wore floppy azure berets bejazzled with golden stars. A vegetarian chef doled out plates of curry for free, and a female choir delivered a burst of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the EU’s official ditty. Collies and spaniels scampered about sporting dog-coats that urged us to hold a ‘People’s Vote Now’. A witty sausage dog wore a tummy-warmer with the legend, ‘Brexit is the wurst’. Everyone in the crowd seemed buoyant and jolly. But when I spoke to individuals I detected a darker mood.
A woman from Cambridge had improvised a black costume inspired, she told me, by the spider-brooch worn by Lady Hale as she ruled the prorogation of parliament unlawful. I asked how hopeful she was about a second vote. ‘Not very,’ she said. ‘I’m getting extremely nervous about everything.’ A grey-haired Scot stood alone holding a saltire and a forlorn pro-EU sign. He said he’d seen drunken Brexiteers at the demo encouraging violence by shouting ‘survival of the fittest’ at Remainers. ‘Is Brexit going to happen?’ I asked. ‘Don’t know. Could be,’ he admitted. ‘It’s a sad psychological space to be in.’ I brought up Project Fear and the predictions of economic woe and mass-deaths caused by drug shortages. ‘I don’t believe in deaths. I believe in facts.’ He added that Brexit would make Scottish independence far less likely.
I approached a meek looking chap holding an incendiary message. ‘If we RIOT will you LISTEN?’ He told me his wife had made the sign and that the police had photographed it and taken no action. Did he believe Brexit would lead to economic collapse and ‘mass-deaths’? He said the wilder predictions had been overdone but he feared an economic downturn. ‘We’ll get it worse than the EU because the pain will be spread out between the 27’.
In search of drunken Brexiteers I spotted a posse of men enjoying a provocative singalong. They completed a noisy lap of Parliament Square punching their fists in the air and chanting, ‘Boris we love you.’ A handful of cops shadowed them into Green Park where their protest continued on a wooden bench. I later saw them feeding the ducks.
At the gates of parliament, a choir of Brexiteers were singing, ‘Good-bye EU! Good-bye EU!’ to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. Their leader was a Londoner in his 50s wearing a Union Jack three-piece suit.
‘Look what happened with the Lisbon treaty,’ he shouted. ‘France, Belgium and Ireland voted against. They were asked to vote again.’ A Remainer challenged him. ‘How does the EU affect you in your day to day life?’
‘I’d rather be poor and free than rich in a communist dictatorship,’ he said, avoiding the question. An angry woman joined him. ‘All you are is ignorant,’ she chided the Remainers. ‘And you use swear-words. Be educated.’ Mr Union Jack piped up in agreement. ‘If you’re having an argument, use English not a swear-word. You say, “Bollocks to Brexit.” That’s the extent of your brilliance? You lost the vote. Piss off.’
I spoke to a Sunderland man with a disturbing placard. ‘Brexit will close my business.’ He told me he works in ‘CE kite marking,’ which regulates the goods that circulate within the European Economic Area. It’s rather a specialised field. And he’d left it pretty late to re-train. ‘Our best customer went out of business last week,’ he said. How many jobs were lost? ‘Four. And one part-time.’ Previously he’d worked as an ‘electrical designer’ but he wasn’t hopeful about reviving a career in that area. ‘Hard to get into. Especially now.’
Many Remainers struck me as natural pessimists who use Brexit as an emotional valve to discharge anxieties that are unrelated to politics. ‘Stop raping our country,’ declared a banner held by a female student. ‘Yes in 2016 doesn’t mean Yes in 2019.’
I put it to several Remainers that invalidating the last referendum would make its successor meaningless. I was told that ‘more democracy’ is always a good thing.
Squalls of rain were falling as the speeches started. Sadiq Khan received a hero’s welcome. ‘We’re stopping the government from committing the craziest act of self-harm ever seen.’ ‘Hooray!’ cheered the drenched crowd. ‘Brexit will drive us into the arms of Donald Trump,’ he added. ‘Boo-oo!’ they groaned.’ ‘This is like a pantomime,’ said a derisive voice behind me. He was a Remainer. He wasn’t wrong.
As the rally broke up I passed the chap flogging ‘Dump on Trump’ toilet paper. He’d sold out. The president would have been proud of him.