Madness! How one small sign summed up a divided nation

Published by The Mail on Sunday (20th October, 2019)

Captain Jean-Luc Picard should have known better than to trust our weather. But scarcely had Sir Patrick Stewart pointed to the symbolism of the sun shining on the People’s Vote campaign than drops of rain began to fall on the marchers massed near Parliament.

It did not dampen the mood of defiance. Hoods went over heads and umbrellas were unfurled as the Hollywood star finished an impassioned speech in his rich thespian tones to fellow protesters demanding a second Brexit referendum.

Then a big screen switched to the proceedings a few hundred feet away in the chamber as MPs voted on the Letwin amendment – and there was jubilation at seeing tellers deliver a result forcing Boris Johnson into another Brexit extension.

‘What we have done is historic because we defeated Johnson again,’ said Shadow Brexit Minister Sir Keir Starmer, who was met by cheers from the crowd. ‘We are not going to let him rip us out with this sellout deal.’

So regardless of the rain, those seeking to stop Brexit – or at least give the public a final say – continue to make much of the political weather. 

‘We are united in believing every form of Brexit is worse than remaining in the European Union,’ said London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

The Mayor’s message that ‘Brexit has been a complete and utter mess’ was backed by hundreds of thousands of people who descended on Central London yesterday to demonstrate in favour of a ‘final say’ referendum.

Banners showed protesters had come from Aberdeen to Cornwall, many of them draped in EU colours or carrying its blue and gold starred flag. ‘We are European,’ tweeted television chef Rick Stein, sharing an image of himself on the march.

Among the protesters was Pauline Smith, 70, from Stockport, Greater Manchester, who said she was demonstrating for her six grandchildren but also honouring her father Tommy, who had fought at El Alamein in the Second World War and who died last year.

‘He thought his lasting legacy was peace in Europe and so he loved the EU, with countries having to co-operate,’ she said. ‘We have to stop the injustice of Brexit.’

This was the fourth – and biggest according to the organisers – march run by the People’s Vote campaign since the referendum took place 40 long months ago.

The People’s Vote claimed one million people took part yesterday after they distributed 1.5 million leaflets, with 172 coaches bringing in people to join a demonstration designed to fuel the pressure on deadlocked parliamentarians. 

A spokesman admitted, however, that it was impossible ‘to put an exact figure on the crowd’ as the march meandered from Hyde Park to Parliament Square, where protesters gathered for speeches under Sir Winston Churchill’s statue.

Hugo Dixon, deputy chairman of the People’s Vote campaign, told me they were putting on a show of force to influence all the forthcoming critical votes in Parliament so that MPs gave the electorate the final say on Brexit.

‘Public opinion has turned against Brexit,’ said Mr Dixon. ‘It would be undemocratic not to check with the people if they still wish to amputate ourselves from our continent. I’m moderately optimistic we will win. But nothing is in the bag.’

Many of the demonstrators carried homemade banners. Some were angry, some crude, some offensive – but lots of them displayed very typical British wit.

‘I am quite cross,’ read one. ‘I voted Remain but all I got was this lousy Brexit,’ read another.

Even some dogs dragged along were clad in blue and gold. An affable woman from Worcester told me she was doing a roaring trade selling ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ socks from her table stall.

Another man flogged toilet paper featuring Donald Trump’s face for £3 a roll.

There was even a contingent of men and women carrying ‘Tories Against Brexit’ banners, which included former councillors and local party officials. ‘We’re not all behind Boris,’ one yelled at photographers taking their picture.

Among them was ex-Tory MP Keith Best. ‘I went in with Margaret Thatcher in 1979,’ he said. ‘It was she who conceived the single market and the idea of majority voting to protect the concept. We’ve shaped Europe and we should continue to shape it.’

He added that he was ‘disappointed’ by his party, saying it had become a caucus of the hard-Right. ‘It is no longer the pragmatic organisation I joined, which was a broad church.’

This bevy of bold blues mingled with the usual ragtag of hard-Left reds, a sprinkling of Greens and scores of people displaying yellow stickers of the Lib Dems.

I stopped to chat with one man holding a banner in Latin reading ‘Tempora mutant, et nos in illis mutamur’ which translates as ‘Times change and we change with them’ – even if the grammar wasn’t quite correct. 

He told me it was aimed at Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, both fond of classical quips.

It turned out he was a former Tory voter whose Lib Dem membership had arrived in the post yesterday morning. ‘I was a businessman who knows the importance of selling into Europe,’ said Nigel Middlemiss, 72, who worked for an analytics firm.

Footage posted to social media showed Rees-Mogg, his young son Peter, and Cabinet Minister Andrea Leadsom being heckled by demonstrators as they left Parliament under police escort to shouts of ‘shame’.

One group of protesters pulled a float depicting key Downing Street aide Dominic Cummings in what seemed to be a Nazi uniform with an armband reading ‘Get Brexit Done’ and depicting Johnson as his puppet.

It was designed by German artist Jacques Tilly – who previously made a sculpture of Theresa May with her nose impaling a man in a bowler hat – and had been driven from Dusseldorf, Germany, on Thursday by Phil Jeanes, who lives in Essen. 

‘He put 14 sketches together and we chose what we thought would be the best,’ said Mr Jeanes, 67, who is retired and married to a German.

Meanwhile, a small group of pro-Brexit campaigners confronted the crowds in Westminster, one sporting a T-shirt saying ‘Back Boris’ and another wearing a Ukip baseball cap.

Jason Hurt, 48, wore a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘I voted Leave’ and said people who voted for Brexit were being ignored. ‘I want my voice heard. It is always about the Remainers, never about the Leavers. There are 17.4 million of us.’

Inevitably they were challenged. A pair of men – one with a loud hailer – repeatedly shouted ‘Stop Brexit’ only to be met by rival chants demanding Brexit.

The scene beside the Mother of Parliaments symbolised the deadlocked debate torturing our nation: two sides shouting slogans at each other but neither listening.

Perhaps the most pertinent sign was held aloft by Alan Tongue, 80, a freelance conductor of music from Cambridge. It read simply ‘Madness’ in small black lettering. ‘It doesn’t refer to the pop group,’ he said with a smile.

One man’s small sign amid the sound and fury of massed marchers demanding another referendum. 

Yet it sums up the state of our divided nation. The final Brexit frontier, wherever it lies, still seems far off. Beam me up, Scotty.

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