On 24 March 2018, the city of Leeds saw its greatest protest in modern times, as over 10,000 protesters took to the streets to join the #StopBrexit Great Northern March, breaking the previous record of an estimated 3000 protesters at the anti-Trump march in January 2017.
Timed to coincide with the anniversary of the triggering of Article 50 in 2017, the event was simultaneously held with other marches and rallies around the country, including Edinburgh, Exeter, Ipswich and Pontypridd in South Wales.
The event was a display of unity supported by all the well-established local pro-EU groups across the North, including Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York, as well as newer ones from Donnington and Hull. It was also supported by others from the Midlands, such as EU In Brum and the Nottingham branch of the European Movement, and many from much further afield, including Thame for Europe in Oxfordshire and Canterbury for Europe from Kent.
Unity was also very much the theme for the rally after the march, which featured representatives of most of the political parties and the main pro-EU groups in the country, as well as grassroots campaigners of all generations.
First on stage, following introductory speeches by the organisers, were the four co-founders of Our Future Our Choice (OFOC).
The four spoke on their desire to overcome the damage and divisions that Brexit is causing and their determination to build a better future for the country instead.
“We can come together and heal the divides in this country” said Callum Milbank, and his colleague Lara Spirit asked young people to join their movement, reminding them that “Brexit is not a done deal“.
“There is nothing patriotic about finding out that the country is doing something that is going to hurt it and just letting it happen” said Femi Oluwole.
Last of the four to speak was Will Dry who confessed that he made a mistake,
“I voted Leave, because I wanted more trade with the rest of the world, ….. more money for our services, not less, and I believe that other leavers wanted that too.”
He said that the lessons of the past two years have shown that people are not going to get what they voted for. On the contrary, “we are going to get less money for the NHS and less trade with the rest of the world“, and young people need to lead the change that is necessary to convince political leaders and parents to do the right thing .
Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the Green Party, was next to speak, and he used the opportunity to ask what kind of Britain people want to live in.
“We stand at a crossroads, and we have to ask ourselves what kind of country we want to be …. the Britain that this government is building doesn’t look like the Britain I am proud of.”
In contrast he outlined his own vision of a fairer open country, and said that it was time for the people to “take back control” from a government that is prepared to sacrifice everything on the altar of Brexit.
In line with the position of his party against Brexit, he also called for a new people’s poll that would be “the first meaningful vote on the future of the country“.
The positive role of the EU in consistently protecting workers’ rights against the UK government’s actions in the past was raised by Mike Buckley, a representative of the Trade Unions.
“We’ve got to be honest with ourselves. There is no Brexit deal that is going to give us better workers rights or more protections. No Brexit deal will give us more jobs… or more opportunities for our young people”.
His talk was followed by Patrick Lohlein of Stop Brexit Ltd, who spoke on the importance of getting organised at a local level and talking to ordinary people rather than engaging in online arguments.
Pointing out some of the Northern groups who had joined the march, he called on the crowd to join the local pro-EU groups in their area, and take part in their street campaigns.
The representative of one local group, Chris Hoffman from EU in Brum, came on stage next with Sorina Stallard, who introduced the EU Flag Relay.
This is an initiative which started as a protest against corruption in Romania with the flag symbolising the protection that the EU gives citizens against their own government. Since then, it has also appeared at pro-EU events in Birmingham, Bristol and at the StopBrexit march on the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
They were followed by Richard Corbett MEP, who explained why so many people are not happy to accept the results of the EU referendum and “just get on with it”.
Starting with an abbreviated list of broken promises from the Leave campaign, that ranged from economic arguments to security cooperation and the unresolved issue of the Irish border, he made it clear that not everybody who voted Leave was prepared to accept “Brexit at any cost”.
Tom Brufatto of Britain for Europe started his speech by declaring that Brexit was never the “will of the people”, but the will of nationalist politicians and right-wing press barons.
“The Cambridge Analytica scandal has blown the lid off the collusion, the conspiracy and the deliberate attempt to subvert our democracy”
Despite this, he showed optimism in the Remain movement’s growing ability to counter this. This included the fact that the high number of active Remain supporters have made it the powerful movement in the country, and the fact that the Leeds march was being held not in isolation, but in coordination with other rallies around Britain.
Eloise Todd, the CEO of Best for Britain, spoke next, calling for positive action from campaigners to keep the pressure up to make sure Brexit will not happen.
She pointed out that while the government has been trying to hide the impact of Brexit, “the truth will always out”, but that time constraints mean that people need to help get the information on its local impact out by getting the stories into their papers, and sharing the info among friends and colleagues.
Emphasising that “campaigning works”, she called for people to join their local groups, regardless of which organisations they are affiliated to. With only 6 months to secure a people’s vote, she also asked people to keep up the pressure on their MPs by writing to them and getting others to do so.
Lord William Wallace of Saltaire took to the stage next, echoing the call for pressure on MPs from a different angle.
Currently working on the EU Withdrawal Bill, he lamented the fact that despite the Leave campaign’s promise to re-establish parliamentary sovereignty, they were now being told to ignore the detail and just “shut up and get on with it”.
Promising the audience that parliament will have it’s say, he asked for support in keeping up the pressure on MPs via letters in the newspapers, and via direct mail and social media. He ended his talk pointing out that the letters should focus on arguments such as the fact that;
“We have now discovered that Russia is a far bigger threat to our sovereignty than anything we’ve had from anywhere else, and that our friends, who share our values and give us support and solidarity, are our European neighbours”.
The conservative argument for stopping Brexit was taken up by Dirk Hazell, who was one of the first Tories to turn against the rabid Euroscepticism in the party.
His speech gave hope on the potential of getting politicians to do the right thing, by citing examples from Owen Smith who was sacked by Jeremy Corbyn over his principled stance on the previous day, to the recent decision of MEPs Julie Girling and Richard Ashworth to return to the EPP.
He also reminded the crowd that every Tory Prime Minister had supported Britain’s case for staying in the EU, and that the biggest majority he had seen in his lifetime was the 2/3 majority of the centre-left and centre-right coalition to join the EU, and that “our political cause today is bigger than any political party .”
Prof A C Grayling spoke on why opposing Brexit is democratic. Taking issue with the placard of a counter-protester who had been heckling the other speakers, he stressed the importance of not accepting the figure of a 52% majority support for Brexit for a number of reasons.
He explained that only 37% of the electorate had voted Leave, and reminded the crowd that many of those most of affected by Brexit had been deliberately excluded from the vote, including hard-working EU citizens in the UK and British citizens living abroad.
He also went on to say that even if 52% of the entire public had voted Leave, such a small majority is not enough to justify the radical constitutional change that Brexit entails.
Jess Moll a student with Manchester Scientists for EU spoke on the importance of fighting to keep Britain’s place in the European scientific community.
As a young Scientist, I am facing a future of potentially not being able to work in the EU – and my own country due to a lack of funding.
She also called for people to fight for the 75% of young people who voted to remain in the EU, and the disenfranchised 16-17 year olds who weren’t allowed to vote in 2016, but now had to live with the consequences. She spoke of various ways of putting pressure on politicians and engaging with the public, including the need to politely engage with those who voted leave.
“We need to remain strong, we need to remain respectful, we need to remain assertive.”
Elena Remigi, the editor of In Limbo, spoke about the plight of 3 Million non-British EU citizens in the UK. Despite headlines of “settled status”, she explained that their troubles are far from over.
The burden of proof of legal residence doesn’t just mean that the home office has the power to reject applications, but it has led to huge complications for many EU citizens including difficulty in opening bank accounts, applying for loans or mortgages, and discrimination in applying for jobs.
She also spoke of how unwelcome many EU citizens felt, noting a rise in racism and hate crime since the EU Referendum, and she condemned the government for remaining silent on this.
Joan Pons Laplana, a well-known campaigner for EU citizens rights, who has just won the Nurse of the Year award, chose to speak on the how Brexit is worsening problems in the NHS.
“As a nurse I have a duty of care, I have the duty of care to tell you that Brexit may kill the NHS”
He expressed his sadness at seeing fellow EU workers in the NHS leaving the UK on a weekly basis, as they are being made into scapegoats for the failures of government.
“Next time you go to your GP and don’t have an appointment, next time you go to A&E and wait 12 hours, next time you call an ambulance and have to wait 24 hours, please don’t blame me, but blame austerity.”
Sue Wilson, the Chair of Bremain in Spain, spoke on the difficulties of getting the British government to consider the interests of UK citizens living in other EU countries, and emphasised that the best way to protect citizens right is to stop Brexit.
Pointing out that the government no longer pretends that life after Brexit will be better, as its own impact assessments have shown that it won’t, she also noted that the mood of the country is changing. People are no longer talking about when Brexit will happen, but whether it will happen at all.
She finished her speech with a call to intensify the fight to stop Brexit over the next 6 months;
“There is only one Brexit that we will accept, and that is a dead and buried Brexit”
The final speaker at the event was Lord Andrew Adonis, the outspoken Labour peer, who has become a leading figure in the campaign against Brexit.
He made the case that staying in the Customs Union and the Single Market is not acceptable to him, and gave four reasons for this.
The UK’s relations with Ireland was first on the list, as it was membership of the EU and the lack of a hard border that ended centuries of conflict. Secondly, he spoke against the illusion of a world of trade deals for the UK, noting that the recent dispute on steel tariffs with the US was only solved by the joint clout of the EU. Thirdly, he criticised the notion that there was more money for the NHS, as it is clear that the opposite would be the case. Lastly, he pointed out that isolationism is not what people want, and that we would fight to preserve our right to live and work in other EU countries.
He spoke of his hopes that Jeremy Corbyn would vote down whatever deal May was to propose, and the need for a final say by the people on what kind of a relationship they would like with Europe.
He also spoke of the need for European solidarity in an increasingly hostile environment, where fascism is threatening democracy and undermining our joint values.
“Our dream is that Brexit is over; we get over this national nightmare, we rebuild our country, we are one nation, and … we are all Europeans”
All photographs by Bruce Tanner