‘Fighting for freedom’: inside the leave protest on what would have been Brexit day

Parliament Square rallies buoy Brexit supporters as Theresa May’s deal defeated once more

It was the day Britain didn’t leave the EU, so the big question – both within the walls of parliament and immediately outside them – was what was going to happen instead.

Less than a week after a million people marched to call the whole thing off, Brexiters were planning their own mass rally outside parliament, aggrieved that 29 March had not proved, after all, to be what they saw as the UK’s glorious Independence Day.

There were, in fact, several planned rallies and protests – one count put it at 11, including expected showings from groups called the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, Proud British, the EU Leaving party and others.

The March to Leave, kicked off by Nigel Farage in Sunderland a fortnight ago, was walking the final leg of its long tramp from Chiswick, though the former Ukip leader was once again not among the 50 or so who have walked the whole way, opting to meet them instead at Parliament Square in London for speeches later in the afternoon.

A little way up Whitehall, Farage’s former party, now led by Gerard Batten, had set up a rival stage and sound system, “kindly sponsored by Tommy Robinson” for their “Make Brexit Happen” event.

The rally in Parliament Square.
The rally in Parliament Square. Photograph: Tim Ireland/AP

A group called Fishing for Leave, meanwhile, promised to drive a fishing trawler loaded on the back of a lorry around Trafalgar Square to protest against “the death sentence” for Theresa May’s deal.

The trawler’s presence would, said a spokesman, offer “the last chance to bludgeon MPs to stop the surrender of Britain”, though that should not be taken as a call for violent behaviour any more than Farage’s opinion piece in Friday’s Daily Telegraph headlined “Only a revolution can save British politics now”. (“It will be democratic and peaceful,” he clarified in the penultimate line.)

Batten, meanwhile, was careful to insist he wanted only a peaceful demonstration even as he invoked on Twitter the provably false suggestion that water cannon might be used against those attending the Ukip protest.

By early afternoon, the union jacks and placards (“Let’s go WTO!”) on Parliament Square and Whitehall were coalescing into two distinct groups, differentiated, by one measure, by the degree of their suspicion of the “remoaner” media.

Among the largely good-natured crowds in Parliament Square, however, others were willing to explain why they had come, even if they did not want to be identified. “I am here fighting for freedom,” said one man from Hampshire, who was wearing a crested helmet that he was careful to specify was in imitation of the Greek Hoplite army.

A no-deal Brexit might well lead to economic hardship, he said, but “freedom is more important than economics”.

Brexit: what happens next?
Brexit: what happens next?

The Brexit vote, he said, “is a mass rebellion by the working class of this country, and I don’t frigging blame them, because they have not been listened to by any of the parties for years”.

Colin and Gillian Knight had come from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, to make a similar call, above all, they said, for sovereignty – “and if the price is no deal, the price is no deal”.

“We have grown up in this country with our opinions and we have always voted accordingly,” said Gillian, “and if you lost, you felt sore for a few days and then you got on with your life. I know this is bigger than just a general election, but there should be the same sentiment on the other side.”

There were cheers as two Scottish flute bands made a tour of the square, and several hundred people gathered below the walls of parliament to shout “shame on you”, while another group broke into a weak chorus of Rule Britannia.

Brexit supporters march into Westminster from Fulham on the final leg of the March to Leave rally
Brexit supporters march into Westminster from Fulham on the final leg of the March to Leave rally. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Of the fishing trawler, there was no sign. “I think it was stopped by the police somewhere,” said John Balls, a crab and lobster fisherman from Bideford who was carrying the banner of the North Devon Fishing Association.

As May’s deal earned her yet another parliamentary defeat inside the Commons, the businessman Richard Tice was making his way along Millbank near the head of the march from Sunderland, insisting that gel trainers and “two skin socks” had saved him from blisters and scornful of the “Waitrose walkers” on Saturday’s march who had managed no more than a mile or two.

What had the march – some days attended by just a few dozen protesters – actually achieved? “For 14 days, from Sunderland to London, we have felt the mood of the country. The Westminster elites need to get out of London and smell the mood.”

Of course, as a millionaire asset manager, he is a man of the people, just like Farage? “We are not part of the elite, we’re part of the campaign for change.”

Steve Coward, from Christchurch near Bournemouth, had joined the march in Sunderland because “my democratic vote was being ignored and I wanted to do something about it”. He was buoyed, he said, to have been joined for the final stretch by a crowd of several hundred placard-wielding demonstrators, some of whom were singing “Bye bye, EU, bye bye, EU” to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.

• This article was amended on 1 April 2019. An earlier version wrongly described the two Scottish flute bands taking part in the protest as “pipe bands”.


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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