I spotted the first of them getting off my train at St Pancras, marked out by his EU star beret. As we chatted on the platform, he told me that he’s a regular in Parliament Square, where the reception to the near perpetual anti-Brexit protest is becoming increasingly less hostile.
Hardly anyone stops to tell them to get real jobs any more.
At Hyde Park Corner, the designated meet point for the second annual Rejoin March on Saturday 23 September, the berets became more and more frequent, like daisies cropping up at the start of spring. People were wearing T-shirts and carrying banners, swaddled in frankly incredible amounts of pro-European merch, and marshals issued calls for the crowd to move down and into the side streets to accommodate the numbers arriving.
The marchers had come from all over the country to protest in the capital; it’s a level of grassroots engagement that would send any Trot group weak at the knees. Signs and banners advertised the presence of local groups from Cornwall, Birmingham, Cheltenham, Sheffield, Salisbury, and many others. Underneath a “Leeds for Europe” banner, a brass band played a pro-remain version of “Delilah”. (I checked the lyrics by scanning a QR code displayed on someone’s backpack and accessing the “Reunion Chorus Songsheet”. They went: “Take back control’s for the government not the people/You took away years of hard won inval-uble rights [phonetic].”)
A man who’d travelled up from Somerset told me he considered it his civic duty to be here, and members of a local group from Bedfordshire said they were worried about Labour and the Lib Dems splitting the vote in the upcoming by-election there and the Tories sneaking in, “like what happened at the Bedford Town mayoral election”. (I look this up later: the Conservative won by 145 votes.)
Steve Bray – aka, the Stop Brexit Man – was true to his nickname. After a loud shout of “Stop Brexit” we were under way, and the march began towards the Houses of Parliament. Other Remain micro-celebrities were dotted throughout the crowd; I spotted the activist Femi Oluwole, and somewhere among the sea of blue and yellow Madeleina Kay, aka EU Supergirl, is recording the video for her new song. It was like Disneyland for retired English teachers and their favourite Twitter accounts.
The beret-wearers were, on the whole, not happy with Labour. “Return us to the Single Market, Sir Kier” [sic] read one sign. One of the rally speakers, Seema Syeda of the left-wing campaign group Another Europe Is Possible, told me that the Labour leader’s position was “lying to the public, and it’s untenable”. The Labour Party in power “will have to get closer to the European Union”, she said, and “if they want to win the next election after that, they’re going to have to engage with the rejoin movement”.
Labour has been indicating, most recently in the form of Keir Starmer’s plan to renegotiate trade deals if he comes to power, that it will edge closer to Europe in government. One gets the sense, however, that the probable nudges closer to the EU from a forthcoming Labour government will be nowhere near enough for the people who’ve printed their own pro-Brussels T-shirts and given up this, only the latest in many afternoons sacrificed for the cause. Rejoin is an emotional matter as much as a political one: they want their star back.
The small parties were also out in force; I talked with a man carrying a placard for the True and Fair Party, the anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller’s new outfit (she was at the front of the march). They had, the man told me, a delegation of around 50 people attending on Saturday, and are planning to stand candidates in ten seats at the next general election. He was frustrated that Labour and the Lib Dems won’t stand aside for them. He’s helping to drive up party membership and engagement with LinkedIn posting.
A man I recognised – I’ve canvassed with him, for the Labour Party – handed me a leaflet for “The Rejoin EU Party”. I asked him about his political journey, and he said there was “no point voting Labour now”. The leaflet counselled that “voting for any of the mainstream parties is a wasted vote for all pro-Europeans”.
One problem the Remain-turned-Rejoin campaigns have always had is being, well, naff. At its worst lacking self-awareness and infused with middle-class snobbery, at certain angles Rejoin feels like a social movement formed of people who think they’re in Paddington but are actually in Parasite. Seven years down the line from the vote to leave and four from the high tide of the People’s Vote campaigns, this problem persists: the yellow “Bollocks to Brexit” stickers, omnipresent in the last years of the 2010s, now come with “#Wetoldyouso” on them.
Naff and condescending though it may sporadically be, what seems impossible to deny is that Rejoin is a genuine social movement – a big one at that – rather than the inorganic concoction of a London media elite. Syeda estimated there were tens of thousands of people marching on Saturday, although the Independent kept to a more measured “thousands”, and the Guardian offered a miserly “hundreds”. Whatever the numbers, these people are not going away and they will not stop turning out, rain or shine, in their Remain berets and weather-beaten blue and yellow outfits.
As the march passed through Trafalgar Square, I was talking to a woman in a “grandmas for Remain” T-shirt when a small child with an image of a muzzled Rishi Sunak on his chest darted in front of us. “He’s from the other protest,” someone said, and I realised with horror that we were beginning to converge with a protest against the ban on XL Bullies.
I am so afraid of dogs that my partner has blocked all XL Bully associated words from my social media to stop me neurotically looking at videos of maulings, so I made my exit shortly after lest I encounter the most dangerous dogs in Britain. As a result, I missed out on a pro-EU dance performance at the gates of parliament, but after my day among the hardcore Remainers I know: there will be other opportunities.
[See also: Brexit has made the EU less liberal and open]