With Brexit vote looming, Britons on both sides rally in London

Protesters hold up placards and Union flags as they attend a pro-Brexit rally promoted by the United Kingdom Independence Party in central London on Dec 9, 2018.
Protesters hold up placards and Union flags as they attend a pro-Brexit rally promoted by the United Kingdom Independence Party in central London on Dec 9, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (NYTIMES) - Protesters from Britain's right and left took to the streets on Sunday (Dec 9), offering starkly different visions of the country's future as the government scrambled to salvage its unpopular plan for exiting the European Union.

In a march led by the anti-Islam activist Tommy Robinson, thousands waved the Union Jack and chanted, "We want Britain out."

Many waved signs accusing Prime Minister Theresa May of treachery, and one man carried a 3m-long noose, telling a reporter, "That's what the traitor May deserves."

One way or another, the marchers promised, the Conservative Party would be punished for not fully severing ties with the European Union.

"The men in black, the establishment, are doing everything they can to keep it from happening," said Mr Rob Wood, 55, who had travelled from Oxford for the march. "If the Tories don't follow it through, they won't get elected again for another 20 years."

A few kilometres away, left-wing organisers gathered for a competing march to counter the far-right rhetoric. Carrying placards that said, "Stand up to Racism", Brexit supporters and opponents alike warned that Mr Robinson was trying to co-opt the economic grievances of austerity-hit Britain.

"They're using Brexit to get more support from people feeling left behind," said Ms Lauren McCourt, 24, a member of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers' Union.

Standing beside her, Ms Claire Trevor, 30, of Leicester, said the march was about proving, especially to young people, that Mr Robinson represented a small minority of Britons, no matter how much attention he got.

"A lot of young people are scared," Ms Trevor said.

 
 
 

Parliament is expected to vote on Tuesday on Mrs May's plan for extracting Britain from the EU. Some British news outlets reported on Sunday that Mrs May would try a last-ditch appeal to win more concessions from EU leaders to mollify conservatives who want a cleaner split.

Those reports raised the prospect that the Prime Minister would delay the vote to avoid an embarrassing defeat in Parliament. And support for a second referendum on Britain's departure appeared to be gathering steam among both Labour and Conservative lawmakers.

The grievances that fuelled the Brexit vote are simmering once more. Disappointment may well inject new energy into the far-right, said Professor Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

"The prospect that Brexit would fix everything was enough for all but the most rabid xenophobe," Prof Bale said. "When people realise that it won't stop the economy sucking in people to do the jobs that Brits can't or won't do, that it won't stop people coming in via family reunification or asylum provisions, and that it won't do anything to send home the millions of people here already, then there will be trouble."

He added, though, that any embrace of violence or racism would consign the UK Independence Party, which played a major role in building support for leaving the bloc before the 2016 referendum, to "marginal irrelevance".

Already, the party has begun a drift toward the political edges, appointing Mr Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, as an official adviser.

That has spurred resignations from the party and prompted fears that the far-right, already emboldened by the referendum result, would capitalise on frustrations with Mrs May's deal.

Many of those taking part in the "Brexit Betrayal" march said that job loss was their central grievance.

"I'm in construction, and in seven years on building sites, I've worked with four English builders," said Mr Lee Windsor, 51. "The rest of them are from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, wherever. The wage difference is: I pay tax, and they get paid in cash."

Mr David Rayner, 51, waved a sign saying, "No Prime Minister Is Better Than a Bad Prime Minister", echoing Mrs May's adage - since abandoned - that no deal with the EU was better than a bad one. He said the benefits of a "no-deal exit" would outweigh its negative effect on the economy.

"You've got people like Lord Adonis saying you're going to lose jobs" if Britain makes an abrupt exit from the bloc, Mr Rayner said, referring to Mr Andrew Adonis, a Labour member of the House of Lords who is pro-Europe. "Where was he when our factories were shutting down and sending jobs to Slovakia and Turkey?"

Ms Antonia Howard, 59, said she had supported the Tories since she was 18. But "never again, we'll never vote blue again", she said. The party, she added, "has really let people down. And good people. We're really not thugs".

The left-wing activists marching on Sunday were a heterodox group of pro- and anti-Europeans, many drawn by their ties to workers' unions, others by their activism against racism or for the rights of Palestinians.

Mr Padraic Finn, 64, a Londoner originally from Ireland, voted to leave the EU and supports Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He worries that a second referendum would resolve little while angering anti-Europe voters.

But above all, he said, it was important not to let frustrations over the negotiations become fuel for the far-right. "UKIP sees Brexit as an opening," he said.

Ms Yasmina O'Sullivan and her friend Chloe White, both 20, said they were trying to start a branch of the anti-racism campaign at the London School of Economics, where they are both students. Ms White said it was easier for people angered by benefit cuts as part of the government's austerity programme to lash out at immigrants rather than policies.

Organisers of the anti-racism rally said that about 15,000 people had turned up to march, while UKIP put its crowd at "quite a few thousand".

The Metropolitan Police in London, which sent scores of officers clad in helmets to monitor the marches, said they did not estimate crowd sizes.

In a packed auditorium in East London, pro-Europe campaigners rallied in support of a second referendum, which they hoped would reveal creeping doubts about leaving the bloc and reverse the results of the 2016 vote.

In October, organisers said nearly a million people, including the mayor of London, took to the streets of London for a "People's Vote" march on the final Brexit deal.

Ms Luciana Berger, a Labour member of Parliament from Liverpool, made the case to the crowd on Sunday that the two million Britons who had reached voting age in the two years since the referendum deserved a vote.