'One million' throng London streets to demand fresh Brexit vote
Opponents of leaving the EU take advantage of lull amid chaotic attempts to push through divorce
London, the melting pot capital of the world, was a sea of red, white, blue and gold on Saturday as more than a million people demonstrated against the imminent prospect of Brexit.
The march, the tail of which had still to leave its starting point on Park Lane when those in the lead arrived at Parliament Square for speeches, was the largest in the city since millions marched against going to war in Iraq in 2003.
There had been high hopes that the march would attract a record turnout – in the hours before it began, a widely circulated online parliamentary petition broke through the 4 million-signature barrier and became the most popular such document ever.
The atmosphere was akin to that of a carnival as the masses thronged around central London ahead of the noon start. A convoy of cyclists sped down Piccadilly blaring Highway To Hell by AC/DC from speakers and a band played the theme to The Great Escape.
A wide cross-section of British society could be seen milling around the wealthy district of Mayfair: there were young families with children, trade union groupings, and many well-heeled members of the comfortable classes for whom this was probably the first time they had taken to the streets.
The hand-made placards sported by young and old alike proclaimed every variety of anti-Brexit sentiment. "We voted on the fantasy, now let us vote on the facts"; "Marry me, I’m French"; and "Why can’t we have Jacinda?" were some on display.
People articulated many reasons for marching. “This is the first protest I’ve been on in my life,” said Harry, 67, from Leeds. “I’m a late starter but it’s just too important to not make my voice heard.”
At the other end of the age scale, Jameela from Bristol talked about what she would lose from the country leaving the European Union.
“My parents were able to travel across Europe without any restrictions,” the 16-year-old told The National. “I think it’s really unfair that older generations have taken that opportunity away from me.”
A smaller pro-Brexit march was carefully shepherded by police away from the route of main demonstration. A ragtag mob of less than 100 in yellow vests, mostly men, noisily voiced their opposition to the EU and one among their number gave Nazi salutes to puzzled tourists in the West End.
As the march wended its way through central London, there was a range of emotions on show. Some were furious at Theresa May’s government for its rejection of the European ideal – indeed, there was anger too at Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party for not backing the march officially.
Many were just sad that the country appeared to be turning its back on the continent. Brendan, 50, from Tooting, London, said that he found it difficult explaining to his two daughters why the country was leaving the EU.
“It’s hard trying to tell them why we’re leaving something as positive and good as being in Europe when you can’t quite understand yourself why it’s happening,” he said.
The march culminated in a rally in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament, although numbers were so large that crowds filled the entirety of Whitehall and Trafalgar Square to watch the speakers on giant TV screens.
While there was no independent verification of numbers, organisers claimed more than 1 million people joined the march.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said: “Some say a fresh public vote will cause further division. I disagree – it is the opportunity we desperately need to heal the divisions that have only widened since the referendum.”
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told marchers that “this is now the moment of maximum opportunity – we need to avoid both the catastrophe of no-deal and the damage which would be caused by the prime minister’s bad deal. The EU’s decision to postpone things until at least April 12 has opened a window, and those of us who oppose Brexit must seize the chance it offers”.
Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson provided a stark contrast to his boss Mr Corbyn by addressing the crowd, and challenged Mrs May allow a people’s vote on Brexit.
“The way to break the stalemate is for parliament and the people to come together,” he said. “The way to reunite our country is to decide on our future together. It’s time to say with one voice: put it to the people. Prime minister, you have lost control. Let the people take back control.”
Updated: March 24, 2019 08:26 AM