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30 October 2019

On the anti-Brexit march, I begin to think this kind of protest is a bit too mild

 I don’t want to leave the EU but that doesn’t mean I love it so devotedly that I want to wear its colours on a beret. 

By Tracey Thorn

It all starts so well. Super Saturday dawns bright and sunny and I head out the door in camouflage jacket and combat boots to join yet another anti-Brexit march. “See you later Wolfie,” shouts Ben. Sunglasses on and a spring in my step, I make for the Tube, my plan being to get off at Green Park and meet friends in Mayfair’s Curzon Street.

This plan comes to a sudden end when my train sails through Green Park without stopping, due to overcrowding at the station. The next stop is Westminster, and I emerge to a scene of crowds already gathering in Parliament Square. I have reached the end point of the march before I’ve even begun.

There is nothing for it but to walk back to the start a couple of miles away. No problem for an avid walker like me. But I haven’t reckoned with the unforgiving nature of my still-quite-new combat boots. By the time I reach Piccadilly I have blisters and the day is looking decidedly doomed.

But no! Right there is a chemist, so I barge my way through marchers gathering on the pavement and am soon sitting on the floor, with my boots off, applying blister plasters to both heels. Back out on the street, helped by the miracle of modern phones, I find the friends I am meeting, and we join the march on Park Lane. As usual, it’s more of a standstill than a forward procession. So we stand, shuffle a little, and stand some more.

I look around me. Lots of EU flags held aloft, and printed on T-shirts, and, oh no, berets. No no, that’s not good. I couldn’t wear a beret with the EU flag on. I don’t want to leave the EU but that doesn’t mean I love it so devotedly that I want to wear its colours on a hat. I don’t think of myself as a furious Remainer, I’m more of a sceptical, confused anti-Brexiteer.

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Confused being the primary description.

“What time’s the vote?” one of us asks.

“Oh, it’s the Letwin Amendment first,” someone answers.

“Jesus,” I reply, “when did we become the kind of people who bandy around phrases like ‘the Letwin Amendment’ as if we know what we’re talking about?”

We nod sheepishly, all of us admitting that occasionally we do hear ourselves using words and phrases that we couldn’t precisely define or explain if we were called upon to do so.

But these feelings of confusion, bewilderment and unhappiness seem closer to the general atmosphere than the division and rage that is supposed to be the current national mood. I think of Barcelona and Hong Kong, which are currently on fire, while in Santiago there’s a state of emergency after riots have left several people dead. I might be wrong, but that seems like social unrest and fury of a different order to what’s going on here.

In fact, while I don’t wish for violence of any kind, I’m beginning to think this march is altogether too mild. There’s no real chanting, and because we’re not moving, we’re all starting to feel a bit flat.

From somewhere behind us we can hear the faint boom of a bass drum. It’s the sound system, and we wish it was nearer. We start to play Beat the Intro. “Ooh, that’s ‘I Feel Love’,” I say, and we try to dance, but it’s too quiet. Another unmistakable bass-line begins and Mark identifies it at once. “‘Last Night a DJ Saved my Life’,” he says, and we look at each other and that’s it, we have to get closer. We start swimming upstream against the tide of stationary protestors, until we finally get to the speakers of the rolling sound system, where Ed from the Chemical Brothers is about to start DJ-ing. “THIS IS MORE LIKE IT,” we shout, and what has been a subdued stroll starts to become a rave.

From one side of me comes a strong smell of weed and I inhale deeply. Someone hands round a quarter bottle of Scotch. Ed Chemical plays a special remix of Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France” and the march comes to life. Later on I hear that the sound system will play Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing in the Name” before finally having the speakers confiscated by the cops, but what a public service it has provided, on a long and anxious day. 

Next week: Kate Mossman

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This article appears in the 30 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone