Brexit march: A carnival of colour as a million people turn protest into a party

Colin Drury
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Brexit march: A carnival of colour as a million people turn protest into a party

In London’s Park Lane, James Lancaster and his band, Brass Against Brexit, stood amid the gathering crowds preparing to march on Parliament Square.

For the two-mile walk, the 10-piece group – trumpets, trombones, sax – planned on playing a selection of New Orleans jazz, classic pop and (but of course) Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, the European Union’s official anthem.

“Brexit is a national crisis – it’s that serious,” the 54-year-old from York said, his giant sousaphone on his back. “But that doesn’t mean our protests against it can’t be a carnival. We’re here because we want to make today joyous. We want to show the world this movement is celebratory.”

It was, perhaps, the perfect articulation of Saturday’s Put It To The People march.

More than a million people – if organisers are to be believed – descended on London to request just one thing: to be asked again on Brexit.

They came, young and old, Labour and Tory, by train and by plane, from the four corners of the UK. They came bearing balloons and banners, face paints and flags – and, above all else, smiles and good humour.

“Have you ever seen a more polite crowd?” asked Silvia Angelotti, an Italian business analyst who has lived in London for 22 years. “Believe me, a march of a million people in Italy – it is not so calm, not so orderly, I think.”

Surrounding Ms Angelotti as she walked down Whitehall – to where speakers included London mayor Sadiq Khan, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and The Independent’s editor Christian Broughton – was a sea of noise and a mile of colour. Or, rather, a mile of blue and yellow.

The shades of the EU were everywhere, from teenagers resplendent in streaks of yellow eyeliner to mums (and dads) donning long blue wigs. Think cup final day on Wembley Way, and you have the right sort of vibe. Only here, supporters were asking – given the closeness of the first result, given the misinformation they say was spread, and given the ever-unfolding sense of calamity – for a chance to rethink and replay.

“That’s not an unreasonable request,” said Sorcha Kirker, an archaeology student at University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in Scotland. “Theresa May has given parliament two votes on this – and she wants another – so why are the people being denied a second say? That isn’t democracy.”

Ms Kirker herself was speaking after a 28-hour journey to be in London. The 27-year-old lives on Orkney. To get to the capital, she had to leave home at 4.30am on Friday, take a boat to the mainland town of Thurso, travel by train to Inverness, and then, at 9pm, catch the 12-hour overnight bus to London.

If you’re reading this anytime between 8.30pm on Saturday and 10pm on Sunday, she’s still on her way back home again.

“Am I tired?” she asked. “Well, I got about two hours sleep on the bus so that’s something. You come to something like this and adrenalin takes over anyway. There are 24 of us here from the UHI, and we’ve all come because this is too important to miss because of something like geography. It’s our future. Brexit is a disaster. It takes away so many opportunities from young people that our parents had – that can’t be fair.”

She and her group were carrying massive EU flags – but placards were largely the order of the day.

Indeed, if national referendums could be initiated by the sheer originality of signs being waved alone, it’s probably fair to say, the Electoral Commission would, right now, already be organising a Final Say vote.

They varied from pop cultural references (“Frankie Says Remain”) to the poetic (“Let’s stay among the stars”), to the somewhat crude: “If only Nigel’s dad had been so keen to pull out,” read one.

Inventive placards were the order of the day (EPA)

Bright yellow stickers featuring the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit”, meanwhile, were everywhere. Including, by the end of the day, entirely covering the Cabinet Office front door in Whitehall. After one person stuck their sticker there, hundreds more protestors followed suit – turning this historic door yellow.

“If Theresa May really thinks she knows how we feel, she might want to look at her own Cabinet Office entrance next time she passes,” said Rob Hollinger, as he added another circular sticker to the mass. “She says she speaks for the British public. She doesn’t speak for anyone here.”

It was a sentiment shared by 14-year-old Jacob Henry. “I got off my Xbox to be here,” his placard told the world.

The youngster, from Milton Keynes, was there with his parents and 16-year-old sister Alice.

“I don’t know if any of this will make a difference,” his dad Leroi, a 49-year-old academic, said. “But maybe the momentum is starting to move in favour of a second vote. I feel the country is starting to shift but I don’t know if it will be too late. But I just think, as a family, we felt we had to try to do something. We had to be able to say in future we gave this a shot.”

It was a hopefulness and positivity that infused the spirit of the whole procession.

With a petition asking for Article 50 to be revoked topping 4 million signatures even as the march started, many people felt, now more than ever, the tide of opportunity was turning towards them.

Certainly Alice Joinel hoped so. She was the mother of possibly the youngest march participant of all. Carried in a papoose was nine-week-old Anouk.

“How’s she found it?” said Alice, who works in publishing in London. “She’s actually slept through most of it. Woke up for the odd feed, then gone back to sleep again. She seems pretty unfazed.”

The 32-year-old came because she felt it was important for the little one’s future.

“Leaving the European Union is going to make her future so much harder and with so fewer opportunities,” she said. “And as a parent, that’s unbearable. So we had to come. Her dad – my partner – is actually French, so you might say she wouldn’t even be here without the EU – that’s how important it is to us.”

As the day came to a close – anti-Brexit chants still filling the twilight – a band could be heard finishing off in Trafalgar Square: Brass Against Brexit.

How did march go for the group?

“Brilliant,” said James again. “A few of us in this band play Glastonbury every year and we’ve played the Rio carnival and, of course, it’s impossible to compare. But this was special: just people getting into it, waving their flags, giving us thumbs up. It felt like we were a part of history.”