Thousands of Brexit supporters descended on Parliament Square to mark Britain’s official departure from the European Union on Friday night, even though it had felt for weeks as though the moment might pass without notice.
After years of bitter debate and infighting, the Withdrawal Agreement passed with little fanfare last week and, in a fit of restraint, Boris Johnson and his government settled for a muted celebration of the UK’s exit. In an address shortly before the appointed hour, the prime minister acknowledged many would have “a sense of anxiety and loss”.
There were to be no fireworks, no bongs and no smug chest-beating. Brexit Day would be an opportunity for reconciliation in a country that is still divided; in Scotland, candlelit vigils were held in several cities and one SNP MP urged Brussels to “leave a light on” for the nation, which voted overwhelmingly to remain.
However, sympathy did not reign in a sodden Parliament Square on Friday night, where celebrations more closely resembled the aftermath of a football match.
Across the square, middle-aged men dressed in Union flag attire, many carrying beer cans, could be heard spontaneously breaking into hearty cries of “Independence Day!” or, more simply, “Brexit!”
In place of Big Ben, which remained silent, a homemade “Little Ben” – a combination of a bell and a bass drum – was rung incessantly.
More extreme pro-Brexit factions were represented most notably by a man carrying an antisemitic sign decrying “fake” media companies “funded” by billionaire George Soros. Another held a placard reading: “Lock up the traitors”.
At a stall near Little Ben, a group called the Sovereign Citizens Alliance called for a 2020 Restoration Bill to bring back Britons’ “God-given rights”, with demands including a ban on EU flags on official buildings, an end to “the cultural Marxist agenda” and the right to carry firearms in the UK.
Figureheads, supposed or real, of the Remain camp – like Tony Blair, the BBC and John Major – were booed in pantomime fashion when mentioned, while an all-star cast of Brexiteer celebrities, including Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin, MP Peter Bone and writer Julia Hartley-Brewer, were each given a hero’s welcome when they addressed the crowd.
Yet as the night went on and the square filled, it became clear that this would be a largely good-natured celebration.
The main feeling was a sense of relief, if not disbelief, that Brexit was finally happening. “I voted to leave in 1975 so I’ve been at this for a long time,” Louise, a 73-year-old Brexit supporter, told The Independent. “It’s quite emotional really – it’s getting our country back.”
“I’m not thinking it’s going to be the answer to everything, but at least we’ll be making our own minds up rather than being told what to do by someone else.”
Her husband Gordon, 77, who came to Britain from Ireland in 1988 and said he had supported Brexit for decades, agreed. “There’ll be hard times, but there would be hard times if we were still in the EU and the point is we make our own decisions and make our own mistakes,” he said.
Kevin O’Neil, a 68-year-old from Wallington, south London, said he came to Parliament Square to be part of history. “It’s such a historic evening, we’ve got our independence back or at least we’re on the way,” he told The Independent. As for what he wanted to see now, he added: “Ideally, Nigel [Farage] for PM, but that isn’t going to happen, I guess. But then again, people said this wouldn’t happen.”
There was at least one undercover Remainer in the crowd. The man, who gave his name as Nick, told The Independent: “I wanted to get a feel for what the opposition is like because nobody I know voted Leave.
“Walking through the crowd, I remember [Channel 4 newsreader] Jon Snow got in trouble for saying: ‘My god I haven’t seen so many white people.’ I think it’s true today.”
Speakers on stage hammered home their message about ordinary people taking down the establishment, and some called for unity across the country – though that sentiment jarred with the more extreme slogans spotted among the crowd.
When Nigel Farage finally emerged to thunderous applause, he summed up the mood in similarly broad-brush terms. “Remember this, what happens now marks the point of no return. We are never going back,” he told supporters. “The rest, in a sense, becomes detail.”
Brexit is done – technically. But so much of Mr Johnson’s work is still ahead of him, and it remains to be seen whether the eventual outcome is what these jubilant Leave voters envisioned when they cast their ballots.
The prime minister must now negotiate trade deals with Brussels, Donald Trump’s Washington, and other capitals, balancing all their demands against the living standards Britons have become used to over half a century of EU membership.
As the clock struck 11, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, insisted that “we’re ambitious, confident and optimistic”. While he said he believed Brexit could be a “stunning success”, his boss felt compelled to warn that there would be “bumps in the road ahead”.
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