The National Rejoin March on 22 October 2022 was a sunny, joyous occasion in the heart of London. It was also big – bigger than even the march organisers were expecting.
Rescheduled because of the Queen’s death, in fact the timing was perfect. Prime Minister Liz Truss had just announced her resignation, following 44 disastrous days in government. The mainstream media was full of accounts of political turbulence and economic market turmoil. And, at the edges, sometimes even centre stage, you could occasionally catch the B word. People were actually beginning to talk about the poison of Brexit.
Once Brexit was ‘done’ (no, it was the ‘UK wot was done’ shouted a placard), a conspiracy of silence had fallen across our country. But now, Brexit is beginning to be associated with the chaos and division that has bedevilled successive governments since the 2016 referendum. And then came the march. At last we could shout about just how we all feel about Brexit and our desire to be re-united with Europe.
Below are four personal accounts from people who wanted their voices to be heard on that day.
A steely determination – Ginny Smith
Facing a turbulent political scene and the cost of living crisis, many predicted ahead of time that the National Rejoin March would be poorly supported. But ‘Rejoiners’ are made of sterner stuff.
There were certainly no signs of faint-heartedness amongst the 50,000 marchers gathered at Hyde Park, ready to march to Parliament Square. Only a sense of joy at being back on the streets, surrounded by EU flags and the usual wonderfully creative placards: ‘Boris’ Brexit Buggered Britain’, read one. All around was evidence that those grass-roots activist groups that had battled so long and so hard against Brexit had not gone away, nor lost their spirit. They might have been hibernating during lockdown and Covid, but like the fabled war horse that springs into action at the sound of the bugle summoning the troops into battle, they were once more marching in their tens of thousands. “Eat your heart out Nigel Farage”, as one of the marchers commented.
Flags from all over the UK were flying as far as the eye could see. The white rose of Yorkshire alongside the martlets of East Sussex, the black St Petroc’s cross of Cornwall beside the green of the Devon flag. Banners from Dorset, Scotland and the north-west advertised the distances that people had travelled to join the demonstration. For those marchers, a deep affection for and affiliation with a particular region of the UK was absolutely no bar to an equally passionate belief in the ideals of the European Union – something that Brexiters appear unable to grasp. That lack of understanding often seems to drive an irrational fury, as the Sussex group discovered when they were loudly berated as “traitors” by a woman incoherent with rage at the sight of their EU flags outside Victoria station.
Was it entirely my imagination that underlying the joyousness and camaraderie there was something different about this march? There was certainly a sense of sadness and anger about all that had been lost through Brexit – but also a steely determination to keep going, a realism about the long and rocky road ahead – and in the face of that prospect, a refusal to be downhearted.
“We’re back, and we’re not going away again until this country returns to the heart of Europe where it belongs”, as one marcher said. “This is my third march”, another woman told me, who had travelled up from Southampton for the day, “and always before we had hope that even at the last minute we could stop Brexit. Now it’s happened and we have lived with it and seen the terrible damage that it’s caused. So I’ll fight for us to rejoin even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime.”
Sue Wilson, the Chair of Bremain in Spain, campaigning for the rights of UK citizens living in Europe, urged us not to be patient nor accept the narrative that we had to wait a generation or even 10 years. Her words gave a real poignancy to the speech that received the loudest cheer of the day – Terry Reintke, German MEP, a passionate supporter of the UK’s membership of the EU, assuring the crowd that our country’s star would be looked after until our return: “and you have the largest pro-EU movement in Europe – keep going”. “Oh we will”, shouted the crowd around me, “we will.”
We want our star back! – Ginny Foster
Cheerful, determined and above all certain that there were no benefits to Brexit, 50,000 of us – Rejoiners – walked to Parliament Square to make it clear that we were not resigned to leaving the EU and that Brexit was not done. There had been moments of uncertainty before we left East Sussex, if not depression, wondering if anyone else was going to turn up and fearing that we would be part of a tragic rump of Remainers.
So it was with elation that we saw the crowds gathering on Park Lane as we crossed Hyde Park, with groups coming from all directions and from every region of the UK. Tears welled up as we crossed the road to become one with all the others holding up their European flags, banners and witty placards, a yellow and blue host of berets, t-shirts and other appropriate regalia. We sang as we walked, not tunefully but joyfully, and the Cornish contingent led us in a rendering of a very apt sea shanty. Tears again as someone else started humming the Ode to Joy, but this was a day for rejoicing and dreams of rejoining, not for remaining or remoaning. There were dancers in Piccadilly, arrayed in yellow and blue, more singing, whistles and some satisfactorily rude chants.
We waved to passers-by and sometimes even to a friendly looking member of the Met. We applauded when cars gave us a hoot and, as we entered Whitehall, it felt as though we were taking London. We booed outside Downing Street (although it may have been empty) and then on to Parliament Square for a rest and a wait for the speakers to begin. Thousands of us cheered, clapped and shouted approval as speaker after speaker inspired us with their resolve. Guy Verhofstadt and Terry Reintke made speeches that were in effect love letters from the European Parliament. But make no mistake, for Guy, Brexit had been a disaster both for the UK and for Europe in general. He raised the question, would the Russian invasion of Ukraine have happened if not for Brexit?
Mike Galsworthy was no less passionate as he made the case for Europe. He introduced the Byline Times documentary about the effects of Brexit and asked us all to contribute our stories. This time we must stay united in a single aim to get our star back and to emphasise the positive benefits of being once again in the European Union. Then it was over and we headed to a pub for mini-celebration, content that the structure for protest was still there, as was our community, the largest pro-EU movement in Europe!
Marching again and rediscovering friendship and hope – Claire Hill
Yesterday, emerging from my Brexit-related pit of despair and overwhelming daily anxiety, I went to London to march for what I believe in – the ideal that a united Europe is better for all of us. It always was.
In the past, when I went on the glorious marches to campaign for a second vote, there was a cautious sense of optimism that we would achieve our aim.
I regularly travelled up to London to protest outside Westminster and developed a routine – secreting a couple of ‘emergency’ tins of gin and tonic into one of my voluminous handbags and remembering to pack my emergency perfume. These were such glorious times, filled with optimism, bonhomie, and comradeship with people we’d never met, but who we bonded with because they had the same core values: inclusive, pro-LGBT, international, egalitarian and creative. How we laughed at those events! We laughed with so many people that we’d never met: it was so easy, because we were connected by invisible threads – empathy and shared core values. They became a replacement for all those long-term friends who, we discovered, had different values to ours. We realised that over all those decades when we thought that we knew them, we didn’t.
After Brexit, we watched in horror as our government exhibited such misplaced exceptionalism and rudeness to our international allies – allies we had fought wars alongside, had international agreements with, intermarried with, shared resources with, and who had the same core values.
And maybe the tragic self-harm of Brexit had to happen for the UK to absorb some hard lessons. Lessons that many of our European allies have had to learn over the last century. Unlike France we have never been occupied by a hostile power. We have never suffered under a fascist dictator, as Spain and Portugal did. We have never come under the umbrella of an over-weening ideology, unlike the Eastern European countries during the period of the Iron Curtain.
Perhaps the one benefit that has come from Brexit is the huge, countrywide (and international) pro-EU community. I have like-minded friends now in every corner of the UK, Ireland and in parts of Europe. These aren’t just virtual friends, but friends I now meet in person.
Yesterday, I found my hope again. I had temporarily mislaid it. I know it’s very fragile and could easily expire – but I believe that with help from others it might survive and grow.
Now is not the time to be faint hearted.
Listen to Claire read her article on Sixteen Million Rising (at 2hr20 mins).
Why I was marching – Tamsin Shasha
I care about the cost-of-living crisis. I care about the state of our economy. I care that Britain is the ‘sick man of Europe’ and has the slowest growing economy in the G7 after Russia. I care that thousands of people will have to choose between eating and heating this winter.
I care about the loss of my son’s freedom of movement. I care that the passports that took away that freedom of movement were made by a company in France. I care that Stanley Johnson can wave his new EU passport and can still travel freely. I care about the cost of visa arrangements for musicians and performers and the impact on our cultural industry.
I care about the rise in anger, intolerance and hate crime in our country. I care about death threats on social media. I care about the rise of mental health issues.
I care about the erosion of our democracy. I care about the sanctity of the Northern Ireland Peace process. I care about the assault on truth. I care that the government try to distract us with culture wars while secretly passing laws to prohibit our right to peacefully protest. I care that the right-wing press intensify that hate.
I care that our government partied while the rest of us stayed indoors. I care that our government awarded millions of pound-worth of dodgy PPE contracts to its friends without due process. I care that £4billion of unusable PPE was burned. I care that £350 million has not been saved by leaving the EU. I care that Boris Johnson illegally prorogued Parliament. I care that he lied and lied and lied. I care that our current Prime Minister may do the same.
I care about renewed investment in fossil fuels when we should be investing in renewables. I care that tonnes of fruit have been left to rot in fields because of a shortage of EU workers. I care that over 35,000 pigs have been culled on British farms since September ’21 due to supply chain and labour issues.
I care about our reputation and standing in the world. I care about not being at the EU table and being a rule breaker rather than a rule maker. I care that our fundamental rights are being stripped away. I care about the loss of Erasmus Plus and the fact that we didn’t have to leave that wonderful youth programme that is now expanding. I care about young people and future that we’ve left behind. I care about all of this and more….
That is why I marched with my family.
You can read Tamsin’s original Twitter feed.