Remainers were there too. The first people I met at the Brexit Day festivities were opposed to the whole idea. I found them on Westminster Bridge, a man and his wife, posing with an EU flag. When the man spoke his voice faltered as if his pet spaniel had just died. ‘I married a German woman. I’ve been brought up to tolerate other cultures and lifestyles.’ I asked which of the many crises outlined by Project Fear would strike us first. ‘Economic slump,’ he said. Will Britain ever re-join? ‘Maybe in two generations.’
A couple with a toddler spotted the EU flag and joined us for a chat. They’d planned to enlist in a Remain Fightback Demo and were dismayed by the poor turnout. The father was a barrister from Gray’s Inn who assured me that ‘crime’ would be the first post-Brexit disaster. ‘As of 11pm tonight there are 17 German sex-offenders who can no longer be extradited to the UK.’ I asked if his legal practice would suffer. ‘No, there’ll be loads of extra work.’ The foursome headed off to Europe House, the EU’s stronghold in London, hoping to find throngs of Remainers holding candles and singing Beethoven. I didn’t like to tell them I’d just been there. The place was deserted.
A boozy, good-natured crowd had gathered in Parliament Square. The mood was one of cheerful relief rather than euphoria. I was immediately struck by a key difference between a Brexit rally and a Remain demo: the complete absence of women with green, blue or purple hair.
A Frenchman paraded a banner proclaiming the imminence of Frexit. ‘How soon?’ I asked. ‘Five years,’ he predicted. A retired English banker told me that Denmark would shortly follow us through the escape-hatch. ‘They have the best benefits system in Europe. Why else would 100,000 Muslims come and live in a country with more pigs than people? The Danes are pissed off.’ How did he know? ‘I was attacked by asylum-seekers at a Danish campsite,’ he explained, ‘the locals were horrified.’
Up on stage the comedian, Dominic Frisby, sang his hit tune, ‘17 million fuck offs.’ He said he’d been advised that if he uttered the words ‘fuck off’ he might face a public order charge. ‘But you can sing it. They aren’t going to arrest 50,000 people.’
The Brexit Party’s in-house knitwear model, Richard Tice, gave a speech wearing a union jack tie. Ten minutes before the Brexit bongs were due to sound, he introduced the star turn.
‘He’s here. He’s a bit shy. Do you want Nigel?’
The crowd roared. And on he came. He could be forgiven a note of triumphalism. It’s hard to think of a bigger or more extraordinary success story in British politics. Nigel Farage has coerced the will of a parliament to which he has never been elected.
‘The establishment tried for three years to frustrate the greatest democratic mandate in this country’s history. But we did it. WE DID IT. I think there’s a lot to celebrate, don’t you? Ten minutes to go. Ten minutes doesn’t sound too bad to me… We will never return. There is no going back. We will be free… proud… independent.’
The bongs came (pre-recorded) and that was it. 47 years of bickering and bullying were over. Cheers and smoke-flares erupted across the square. As the crowd broke up, a female student, with a union jack in her hair, handed out celebratory flags. ‘No flag, no country,’ she said.
Outside Downing Street a crowd had gathered chanting, ‘Boris, Boris.’ Some lingered for half an hour hoping that the PM might poke his nose out and give them a wave. Near the Cenotaph I came across a hearty Russian and a Lithuanian blonde dancing and singing a little giddily. ‘We are drunk. We love celebrate. We love Britain,’ he said.
In Whitehall I met a teacher in his 60s who told me that Maastricht had been the turning point. He described the EU as a free-trade area which had secretly morphed over the years into a sinister, centralised authority. That’s not how I remember it. I was nine years old when we joined and there was no attempt to conceal our destination. ‘The United States of Europe’ was spoken of openly as an exciting and prosperous counterweight to our allies in north America. Nobody was hoodwinked. The game was on from the start.