In a North London living room, two days before the People’s Vote march, a small handful of the perhaps 100,000 people who will march through the capital met to make their posters.
They are, wait for it, the Hampstead and Muswell Hill People’s Vote Community Group. It is a name that seems almost parodic of itself. These people’s concerns, after all, couldn’t possibly be as serious as the concerns Leave voters have, the ones in northern towns and cities, with “legitimate concerns about immigration”, who’ve been “left behind”.
But real life, and real people’s lives are never quite so simple. Among them are John and Judy Dodds, both retired teachers.
“This is not how we planned to spend our retirement,” says Judy, by which she means, “hanging around outside tube stations in the morning rush hour, handing out flyers and leaflets”.
Judy, especially, is furious. Since the Brexit vote she has applied for German citizenship, but she’s not sure if she will get it. Why would she be eligible? “My mother was German,” she says. “Her aunt was kindertransport,” interjects John, both refugees. Judy’s mother was a German Jew who came to Britain in the 1930s. Her sister came slightly later, in the kindertransport rescue effort in which 10,000 Jewish children were evacuated from Germany and other Nazi controlled countries in the nine months before the Second World War.
“I am just so angry and so upset,” she says. “I have never been politically active, but this country is falling apart. I can’t stand it. We used to be so proud to be British. We never say we’re British anymore.” John and Judy have two children, one is married to a Czech woman and lives in Prague, where he works as a psychoanalyst. He has faced struggles to have his status sorted. “I’m pleased he is there, rather than here,” she says.
“This whole thing has really politicised us, but we just feel so isolated. We can’t stand either of the leaders of the main parties, but we would vote for anyone who would stop Brexit.”
If Brexit is not stopped, Judy says they would, “like to leave” but they accept they probably won’t. “Our whole life is here, we’re retired. We can’t speak German.”
Maybe, they admit, the march will have no effect, but you you have to try. They’re more than aware of the broken politics of it all. “There’s no majority in parliament for any option,” says John. “In the end, it may have to come down to a People’s Vote. Six months ago, nobody had ever heard the term, and now look. Theresa May mentioned it in her conference speech, the Daily Express are calling us traitors on their front page, that shows they’re worried.”
Then there’s Saskia O’Connor, who’s a dentist. She was born and raised in Newry, County Down, right on the Irish border, and still remembers “the bomb scares”.
“It was not a comfortable life,” she says. “But then there was the peace process. And Newry has done so well since then. The Troubles have subsided, tourism is booming. The hotels are all booked up, all the time.
“If you have a hard Brexit, police checkpoints and so on, all that would be affected.
“I just decided that I can’t just sit there passively and watch it all happen. I work in the NHS, and there are nurse shortages because people don’t want to come and work here. It paints the country in a very bad light. It’s embarrassing.
“I don’t think people voted Brexit because they were bad people, but they were given false promises. They signed up for something that isn’t going to happen.”
And then there’s Laura Abramovsky, who’s a British national, but who grew up in Argentina. She too, unsurprisingly, lived through a youth that was not short on political convulsion. “I have been on marches in Argentina, but never here,” she says. “This is the UK.
“You know, the politics we are seeing is just the same, here as it was there. The politics are the politics of fear and resentment. You think you have basic rights, you take them for granted. But maybe you can’t take them for granted, you must be careful with them.”
Then there’s Dominique and William Welbank, a married, middle aged couple. Dominique is French, but has been in the UK for twenty five years and suddenly, in June 2016 had her life turned upside down. During their marriage, William has worked and Dominique hasn’t. Which means all, of a sudden, Dominique found herself not earning enough for personal residence, without five year’s worth of health insurance, because why would she have that. She meant to apply for British status in 2013 but didn’t do the forms, which involved listing every time she had left the country in the last three years.
Dominique says she is “not surprised” at recent comments from Emmanuel Macron, that the question of status in the United Kingdom for EU nationals is not settled, because that is her experience too.
The banner she will be carrying on Saturday will say the words: “Politicians had their chance. Now it’s our turn.” It is a sentiment that is hard to query.
Whatever happens, one imagines the Welbank’s problems will be sorted, but future generations will not be as lucky as them. “People won’t get the chance to fall in love,” says William, and sweeps in to give his wife a fleeting peck on the lips.
Their organiser, or leader, if you like, is Sarah O’Keefe. She teaches in a nearby state school. She describes feeling “devastated” by the referendum result, and doesn’t feel any less devastated now. “I wouldn’t say the last two years have gone worse than I expected,” she says. “Theresa May has an impossible job. I’m not surprised she’s failed.”
She admits to the possibility that a second referendum could “go disastrously”, and release even more toxic forces than the last one. But there are no good options.
Of course, no one here has changed their mind on Brexit. They hated it then, and they hated it now. But some people have changed their minds on Brexit, changed their positions: that’s undeniable.
David Davis, for example, promised a free trade deal exclusively with the German car industry, and a free trade area “ten times larger” than the European Union. When asked to account for those views more recently, he just laughed and said, “That was then. This is now hahahaha.”
Liam Fox promised dozens of free trade deals ready to go the moment we left the European Union. He now admits that was always legally impossible.
Three days after the referendum, Nadine Dorries claimed that “the Norway model has always been my preference”. The Norway model involves staying in the single market. She has since described party colleagues advocating such a position as “traitors”.
So the politicians have changed their minds on Brexit, changed their positions, plenty of times in the last two years.
The only ones who have not been allowed to do so thus far are the people. It would not be an affront to democracy if that were to change.
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