Stay or go? Protesters for and against Brexit put their passions on display outside Parliament

While British politicians struggle to find a way forward with the U.K.’s plan to leave the European Union, determined demonstrators for and against Brexit make their case outside Parliament.

Strong commitments to their cause draw demonstrators to central London

Brexiteers and Remainers confront one another outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on March 25, 2019. (Dan Hollingbery/CBC)

Union Jacks and EU flags flutter wildly atop lampposts and flagpoles. People gathered in Parliament Square in central London also wear them draped over their shoulders, as makeshift capes.

Chants of "Leave means Leave" and "Stop Brexit" can be heard over the din of traffic rushing by. On occasion, the shouting matches turn into tense confrontations.   

Outside the Houses of Parliament, dozens of demonstrators for and against the plan for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union have been making their case since the 2016 referendum.

Inside, MPs have debated for nearly three years over how, and when, the divorce will take place.

On Friday, Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May's withdrawal deal was voted down a third time, casting more uncertainty on an already complex issue.

With Britain's parliament deadlocked over the way forward on Brexit, speculation is growing that May could call a snap election to try and break the impasse.

The Sunday Times reported her media chief, Robbie Gibb, and her political aide Stephen Parkinson were pushing for an election.
But the deputy chair of her Conservatives, James Cleverly said on Sunday the party was not planning for an election, while justice minister David Gauke warned it would not solve the issue over the way forward on Brexit.

With the exit date delayed to April 12 or beyond, demonstrators from both sides have been reaffirming their commitment to their cause and insist that they will keep protesting until the bitter end.

Here's what some of them had to say recently.

The flagbearer

IT consultant Kevin Down, 58, attends the People’s Vote March in central London along with hundreds of thousands of other Remainers on March 23, 2019. (Dan Hollingbery/CBC)

Kevin Down, 58, is easy to spot in a crowd or on a march, his four-tiered flagpole flying high above the rest.

Recently, Down has been sporting an emblem for the county of Buckinghamshire, northwest of London. He hopes this helps prove that the Remain movement has broader support outside of what critics call the "London bubble."

An IT consultant from Aylesbury, Down has already used a majority of his holidays this year to protest, and will likely use up the rest if Brexit is delayed again.

Down flies a blended Union Jack-EU flag, left, the emblem of Buckinghamshire, the Scottish independence flag and the EU flag at the People’s Vote March in central London on March 23, 2019. (Dan Hollingbery/CBC)

He is motivated by his passion for Europe and recalls a childhood in Devon, in southwest England, before European integration in 1973.  

"I remember blackouts, poverty, lack of money, lack of jobs, nothing to do, questionable futures. Then this thing called the Common Market came along and things got better," he said.   

Once a Conservative and then a Liberal Democrat, Down now describes himself as politically homeless but will support any party that makes Remain a priority.      

In the event Brexit does happen, Down said he is willing to take a step further to remain in the EU.

"If we leave, I will up sticks and reregister my vote in Scotland. I would vote Scottish National Party and I would vote for Scottish independence," he said.

The democrat

Brexiteer Marilyn Daley stands firm in her protest outside Parliament on March 25, 2019. (Dan Hollingbery/CBC)

Marilyn Daley, 66, knows she could be enjoying her retirement in a more traditional way, over long lunches near her home in the London borough of Redbridge or socializing with friends.

Instead, she stands sentry outside Parliament behind a row of red Leave placards and has done so nearly every day since December.  

"It's about democracy now. It's not about whether you voted Leave or Remain, although I did vote to leave. It's about democracy. If they can overturn 17.4 million people, what will they do next time?" Daley said.

A lifelong Labour supporter, Daley voted Conservative in 2017 after May promised: "Brexit means Brexit." Daley said she now feels like she was lied to and fears that a delayed Brexit could turn into a cancelled one.

Daley thinks that her protest will embolden MPs to honour the referendum results and accuses them of ignoring the will of the people.

"My constituency voted to leave, but my MP doesn't believe in us leaving because he thinks he knows better than us," she said.

The revokers

Shelagh Rowling, left, and Helen Searby call on the U.K. government to cancel Brexit in front of Parliament on March 25, 2019. (Dan Hollingbery/CBC)

Among the more controversial options supported by Remainers is revoking Article 50, the section of the Lisbon treaty that allows member states to leave the EU. A petition asking the government to do just this has been signed by six million people, including Shelagh Rowling and Helen Searby.     

"I've worked in France and Italy. I fell in love and hung out in Germany for a bit. We are denying this to our children," Rowling said.

A former teacher from Chesham, about an hour's drive northwest of London, Rowling protests for her daughter, a classical musician who works in Europe and could see her freedom of mobility tighten come Brexit.

Rowling waves an EU flag in front of the Houses of Parliament on March 25, 2019. (Dan Hollingbery/CBC)

"I'm also doing this for my kids because I want them to have the opportunities I had," Helen Searby said.

Searby has put her work as a freelancer on hold to demonstrate two or three times a week, between school drop-offs and pickups.

"The day of the referendum, I got straight on the computer and ordered myself an EU flag and badges. I knew I was going to have to be out there demonstrating, I just knew it," she said.

Searby protests beside the members' entrance to Parliament on March 25, 2019. (Dan Hollingbery/CBC)

Searby has been a regular at Parliament Square since November, while Rowling has demonstrated for almost a year, surprised by her own commitment to the cause.

Both women want the government to effectively cancel Brexit and believe their protest keeps this option front of mind, for MPs and viewers at home.

"My preference is not actually for a people's vote but rather to just revoke Article 50. Just say — oops we've revoked it," Searby said.

The optimist

Chris, 29, demonstrates with the Brexiteer camp outside Parliament on March 26, 2019. (Dan Hollingbery/CBC)

Chris, 29, who did not want his last name published, works in the television industry in London.

"I work in a very heavily Remain industry and most of my friends in London are all Remainers. I feel like sometimes when you live in London you get this idea, and it's the wrong idea, that the whole country is against Brexit."

Protesting gives Chris the chance to talk to people with a different point of view and allows him to share his positive spin on Brexit.

"We should believe in our country. A lot of my friends who are Remainers seem to be ashamed of Britain and are embarrassed by it. I think that is so negative," he said.

Chris thinks Britain's economy has and will continue to thrive without the EU and believes that his message could help change reluctant Remainers' minds.  

Although protesting has been something of a release for Chris, he finds having to campaign to make sure Brexit happens unfortunate.

"The Remainers … need to accept that they lost the referendum and they don't seem to have the ability to do that," he said.

The songman

Anti-Brexit demonstrator Paul Calladine shows his support for the Remain camp outside Parliament on March 25, 2019. (Dan Hollingbery/CBC)

Paul Calladine joined the Remain side in late 2018 after seeing protesters intimidated and harassed on TV.

"I felt compelled. I felt I had to come along and show my support," the 57-year-old civil servant from Wimbledon said.

Now a favourite among other Remainers and passers-by, Calladine helps keep spirits high on long afternoons belting out protest songs like We're Not Gonna Brexit, sung to the tune of Twisted Sister's We're Not Gonna Take It.

Jane Keane, and Calladine sing protests songs opposite the Houses of Parliament on College Green on March 25, 2019. (Dan Hollingbery/CBC)

After years of deadlock, Calladine says that Brexit negotiations have left the country worse off, and more divided than ever.

"That's just our exit terms. How many more years for the future arrangements? Four, six, eight years? We don't want to inflict that damage on ourselves," he said.  

Calladine maintains that the referendum in 2016 was flawed and hopes that any withdrawal agreement will be put to a people's vote.

"What's undemocratic about asking people: 'Do you approve of the deal that's been put together, or do you want to remain?'" he said.

Addressing the possibility of continuing to protest if Brexit is delayed again Calladine was unshakable in his conviction.

"[I'm] committed to this. This is the biggest decision in my lifetime. We are European and Britain is a success because we're in the EU," he said.


Dan Hollingbery is a postgraduate journalism student at Humber College in Toronto.

With files from Reuters