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1 February 2020

From candlelit vigils to karaoke: The night Britain left the European Union

As politicians preached unity, the riven identities created by their rhetoric were on show in London and beyond.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The damp streets of central London revealed the contours of our new United Kingdom in the hours leading up to its departure from the European Union at 11pm. As the Prime Minister Boris Johnson preached unity in his televised address to the nation, the wounds among citizens in the capital and beyond were clearly still fresh. Photographers surrounded a dejected Union Jack-clad bulldog sitting in a puddle outside Westminster Underground Station, as if to represent something.

When the evening set in, with arrivals to a party in Parliament Square purchasing £2 plastic Union Jacks from eager touts, another crowd gathered just a few streets away to light candles in a silent vigil for EU citizens’ rights. The very people Eurosceptic veteran Peter Bone MP would grumble came to live here “whether we wanted them or not” during his turn on the Parliament Square stage later that night.

The “Brexit celebration” outside the Houses of Parliament, organised by the Brexit Party and complete with  “Rule Britannia” karaoke and a jazz band, played host to signs reading “Remoaners are traitors” and “Lock up the traitors”.

“‘Brexit celebration’? What is there to celebrate?” asked one passerby who stopped to take photos of the flag-waving crowd. “It should be Brexit commiseration.”

Footage on a big screen of the UK’s history as a European Union member cycled through different politicians – Tony Blair received the loudest boos, and Nigel Farage the biggest cheers, plus adapted football chants and even some wolf whistles. The man himself addressed the crowd after over an hour of classic Brexiteer warm-up acts, including former Conservative minister Ann Widdecombe and the self-styled people’s publican, Tim Martin of Wetherspoon.

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Some speakers at the Brexit Party rally struck a conciliatory tone: Martin reached out to “our Remainer colleagues and citizens” as “our friends” and praised the “contribution” of European workers, while pro-Brexit broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer said it didn’t matter which way you voted, “we can end all of that division tonight at 11pm”

But it’s too late. The identities entrenched by Leave and Remain were stark as the digital clock beamed onto No 10 Downing Street began its countdown. Some of the night’s other performers attacked “BBC bias”, “the establishment” and recited a roll-call of liberal public figures for boos like pantomime villains (Sadiq Khan, Andrew Adonis, Tony Blair, Gary Lineker…). Unlike the sporadic calls for peace, these gambits went down far better with a crowd primed over nearly four years to Spot the Enemy.

Just a ten-minute walk away, outside Europe House in Smith Square, a Spanish NHS nurse, Joan Pons Laplana, had been preparing to light a candle for himself and his fellow EU citizens living in the UK a few hours earlier, saying: “The government needs to do the right thing and stop playing games with people’s rights.”

The silent vigil received support from people who gathered to watch, but police formed a cordon between them and a group of heckling pro-Brexit individuals on the other side of the square, according to the civil rights group that organised the event, the New Europeans.

Such striking contrasts were echoed across the country, in Brussels and beyond, in similar wakes, parties, pints and protests. Mournful renditions of “Auld Lang Syne” jarred with merry bursts of “Land of Hope and Glory”, when no one really knows all the words to either.