Considering the roads are closed off it becomes clear that nothing’s crossing the river into Westminster so I get off the bus at Pratt Walk, which feels rather on the nose.
I, a metropolitan elite Europhile, am on my way to infiltrate the Brexit celebrations in Parliament Square. I say infiltrate but it’s a ticket-free event with no guestlist. Brexit Berghain it is not.
🗓 31 January
🌃 Parliament Square, London
👥 Attendance is FREE
🇬🇧 Grab your Union Flag and come celebra… https://t.co/EEkhsHLDXF
— Britain Means Business (@Britain Means Business)
The event, organised by Leave Means Leave and headlined by Nigel Farage, is strictly booze-free, so of course I’ve brought an Evian bottle of vodka. The first thing I see as I reach Parliament Square are all the flags, flapping in the lights like Victorian hookers. Then the noise hits me, a low rumble of jeers, cheers and incoherent football chants. This being London, the first actual conversation I hear is in Italian.
They’re certainly not the only European voices I’ll hear through the night, along with American, Japanese and – more surprisingly – Irish, but the crowd is overwhelmingly white and English. It’s a controlled vibe, not too much shoving, but there’s an underlying tension and a lot of angry shouting. That surprises me from a group of people so firmly convinced they have “won” their heart’s desire. There’s the odd waft of gunpowder and a smell of weed in the air. I hope it’s been through customs.
I approach a group of guys about my age, holding cardboard shields and swords. One tells me, swigging from a bottle of wine, “It’s hard to find a Londoner who isn’t a bloody Remainer.” In an almost incomprehensibly posh accent he says the soggy sword is, in fact, for killing Remainers. I ask for a swig of wine to surreptitiously check the bottle isn’t European. An unimpeachable New Zealand shiraz. Fair play.
I talk to some rather rowdy Millwall supporters from Bermondsey, who are shouting: “Brexit! Brexit Brexit!” while brandishing cans of lager. They’re not willing to chat about the finer points of the Withdrawal Agreement but they do press a can on me. One asks for a kiss, which I politely decline.
On a large screen above a makeshift stage, a video begins to play. It’s more or less the history of the UK’s relationship with the European Union, beginning with the 1975 EU referendum all the way through to the last general election, interspersed with gratuitous clips of Farage’s attacks on bloc presidents, including the famous “damp rag”. Who are you, who voted for you? Presumably something Farage has heard once or twice.
The video has a distinct WW2 propaganda feel: it’s jerky and sped up, with weird jolly voices and jingoistic music. There’s some huge cheers for Margaret Thatcher, and the biggest boo is for any BBC footage – even the bits announcing a massive hike in interest rates. John Major’s none too popular, and nobody seems to know who Christopher Gill is. The clip of Barbara Castle from that Oxford Union debate reinforces a common belief that posh accents ruin politics.
They’ve remixed Theresa May saying “29th of March” over and over again. One young woman behind me says: “It’s just like 1984 – you know, the movie?” After the third time watching this propaganda on loop, I’m starting to get her point. I, too, now love Big Brother and believe we were always at war with Eurasia.
Speaking of Big Brother, Nigel Farage – or Nige – is definitely the hotly anticipated headline act. One guy sums it up pithily: “I respect what he’s done. Don’t like that he’s a racist.”
People keep shouting: “We got the referendum thanks to Nige!” I hope David Cameron isn’t watching from his shed. Indeed, Cameron has the dubious accolade of being the only thing Remainers and Brexiteers agree on: that he is somehow at fault.
The tension builds, with a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-style bass. It’s like the start of a boxing match but with waterproofs. Against my will I’m starting to feel a bit tingly. It’s so English and testosteroney I think I feel my Ed Balls drop.
Finally, Richard Tice arrives on stage. Chairman of the Brexit party, co-founder of the campaign group Leave Means Leave and former chair of Leave.EU – because just one won’t do. “Hello Westminster, hello Brexiteers! Are we gonna have fun tonight?” There’s a desultory cheer back. It’s like a Christian rock concert.
“There’s going to be a lot of audience participation,” Tice says, igniting fear in the hearts of the English, “because we’re democratic. The big winner here is democracy.”
There’s a first mention of 'sovereign". Players of Brexit Bingo, drink!
(I’m deliberately skipping over the bit when we all tried to sing Land of Hope and Glory but completely fluffed it because nobody knew the words past the first two lines. When resident emcee Tice tells us there will be much more of the singers later, there is no cheer.)
The voice of reason, the voice of wisdom, the voice of Wetherspoons: Tim Martin
Actually, judging by the smell of the crowd, the big winner here is booze – which makes sense when Tim Martin later takes the stage. Everybody forgets they hate big business for a second to cheer the Wetherspoons boss and unlikely Brexit champion. A few English heroes start chanting, “Free beer! Free beer!”
The unlikely Brexit champion (given his pub chain’s dependence on underpaid EU workers) tells the audience that the referendum was “not a vote against them [Europeans]” – something many in the crowd boo. “It was a vote for democracy; it wasn’t a vote for xenophobia.” He stresses that a lot of EU migrants have “come to this country legally and worked very hard, and made a great contribution”. To his coffers.
Martin decries the “500-page deal that only the attorney general can understand”, and tells us he’s written a one-sentence deal to help Boris Johnson. “Dear Michel Barnier, we agree to trade with you without tariffs – and that’s it!” Genius. Get the man a seat at the table.
“We are magnanimous in victory,” he says. The man with a prominent “Lock up the traitors” placard seems to suggest otherwise. I approach him warily, dressed as he is in full King Arthur regalia, and ask him whether he wants to talk to me. He’s perfectly cordial, telling me his name is Jeff from Milton Keynes. I later find out from Lizzie Dearden that he is Jeff Wyatt, the former deputy leader of the far-right For Britain party. Apparently he hates journalists. I’m suddenly very glad I never learnt shorthand.
Opening acts: Ann Widdecombe, John Mills and Julia Hartley-Brewer
Also on the billing is Ann Widdecombe, former Brexit MEP and Strictly Comedancer who very much looks like Churchill in a wig. She’s doing that weird thing with her ‘r’s that posh people do during hymns, rolling them like they’d roll their peasant serfs. It’s a bit unfortunate because everything she shouts – ‘Frrrreedom! Brrrrrexit! Farrrrage!’ – has a dramatic R. She sounds like the Grand High Witch. “There will be NO LEVEL PLAYING FIELD,” she hollers. It’s quite terrifying.
Soverrrrreeeign state! Drrrrink!
Other acts in the line-up were John Mills of Labour Leave, managing to kill even the most ardent Brexit boner with a speech on agricultural policy, and Julia Hartley-Brewer bringing it back by ripping open her coat to reveal a Geri Halliwell Union Jack dress. “More old spice than Ginger Spice,” she jokes. I will never unsee this.
The singers are back to lead us all in an unironic rendition of Rule Britannia – but the audio and screen are out of sync so again, and there’s panic in the air as nobody knows the words. Did anyone else know it had an intro verse?!
There have been renditions of ‘Relight my Fire’, a cursed Queen/Beatles medley mash-up and of course, ‘Wake Me Up, Before You Go Go’. We’ve also had some comedy minstrelling from a man professing to be a band called the Gilets Jaunes. Highlights include the ‘Maybe Donald Trump is Not All Bad’ song, and one seemingly only about the BBC.
There’s a lot of anger at the BBC, but also at Theresa May, David Cameron, the mainstream media, Jeremy Corbyn, Lord Adonis, Emily Thornberry, Mark Carney, the Bank of England, Hugh Grant, maybe some Jews… it’s a very long list of people they’re telling to “fudge off”.
Out of the darkness, there are sounds of distant chanting. What’s that coming over the hill, is it Remainers? Everybody is suddenly on tense alert, like drunk meerkats. I feel quite inspired. Do you hear the people sing, singing the songs of Hilary Benn…
At this point I’m getting antsy with the wait, and starting to empathise with Brexiteers. Nearly four years? No wonder they’re annoyed. I can’t even cope with two and a half hours. The weight of all this sovereignty has done my back in. I find myself saying something I never, ever thought I’d say: “I wish Farage would hurry up and come.”
(To be fair, one woman behind me keeps shouting “Fuck Mike Gapes!” which is making me sob with laughter. Peace and love to that lady.)
Farage finally shows up!
Finally, finally, Farage turns up (when all the work is nearly done). He’s worryingly sweaty, and his opening line leaves a fair bit to be desired: “I think there’s a lot to celebrate, don’t you? The first thing to celebrate is that we will no longer have to listen to Mr Juncker!”
Most of Farage’s speech, in fact, is focussed on all the things we will no longer have to do – the orders we won’t have to take, the bedtimes we won’t have to adhere to, the bent bananas we won’t have to eat... Very little in the way of positivity but he does have one of those new 50p coins in place of swag.
Eventually, we reach the final countdown. Big Ben begins to bong. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1! The screen lights up: “WE’RE OUT!” Smoke machines go off. Flags wave with abandon. But there’s much less joy in the air than you might have expected. It all feels a bit… flat.
People soon begin the slow shuffle of the damned towards Westminster bridge. The crowds make it almost impossible to move but at least we’re getting some practice in for Dover delays. There are vague mutterings of, ‘Pub?’
It’s a lot like leaving a football match. Even though their team won, they’re still pissed off. Perhaps because, upon leaving, they’ve discovered that the result they so longed for made absolutely no discernible difference to their lives.
Other than that, the event was much like any other English celebration. Booze was banned but we’re all inexplicably drunk, it’s pissing it down but there aren’t any loos, and it’s all fairly polite barring the odd racist.
Coming over the bridge back to south London, I manage to hitch a ride on a rickshaw commandeered by two enterprising young men. I end up on the lap of Andrew from Glasgow, which frankly was the most exciting thing to happen all night. It occurs to me that I’m experiencing my newfound English independence sandwiched between a Scot and Jamie from Northern Ireland. Ironic.
I woke up this morning and, mild hangover aside, nothing feels very different in this promised land of Brexitania. I imagine most of my fellow revellers feel the same. So after I finish writing this article and go back to sleep, can someone please wake me up when we actually dogo go?