‘I’d like the rude ones, please’ – Devon for Europe back out in Exeter for the Day for Rejoin

All photos by the author

“Oh no, I’d like the rude ones, please!” said the immaculately-groomed lady at the table, pointing to the “Bollocks to Brexit” stickers when I offered the polite ones; “my youngsters and their friends all love them! And in any case, I don’t care if I offend anyone with the message: they’re probably Leavers anyway!”

Devon for Europe were out on the streets again to remind the public that Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster – “a catastrophic act of self-harm”, as at least one passer-by invariably says – and that not only (despite the stated aims of some of our politicians) can it never be made to work, but that as a nation we cannot continue pretending to ignore the damage. However divisive it has been – and it is the source of much bitterness – for the sake of our country’s future and most especially for our young people, we must try to begin a grown-up discussion, a national conversation, about how we really can “move on” from it – in a forward gear, and not reverse as seems to be the case so often at present! I sometimes think of how long the so-called ‘Euro-sceptics’ banged on – 40 years and more – so why should we be expected to give up and go away quietly, especially when it’s in the best interests of the country that we don’t!

Devon for Europe held their street stall in the middle of Exeter on 23 March 2024; it was one of the events taking place across the country for a Day for Rejoin. The weather was not especially kind to us, with a gusty, cold wind and occasional heavy showers; but in spite of the forecast, well over 20 volunteers turned up to man the stall, and despite getting soaked through, nearly all stayed the course: a real testament to people’s commitment and enthusiasm.

As usual, we heard some very sad stories about how Brexit has broken family bonds and destroyed small businesses. One man told us his wife is French (and he proudly showed the French ID card he owns as a consequence) and he has close relatives in Belgium and Poland: since Brexit it has become much more difficult for the whole family to get together as regularly as before. Another told us that he used to have a business trading in guitar parts and spares, most of which he exported to the EU; Brexit red tape put paid to that, and subsequently to the business. (Weren’t we promised less ‘bureaucracy’ if we voted ‘Leave’?)

Another passer-by who was very engaged was one of those about whom I must confess my first prejudiced impressions were completely wrong. The lady turned out to be 90 and was delighted to see the Devon for Europe presence. She is highly indignant that “old people” were blamed for voting to leave the EU, when – as many of us within Devon for Europe have found in the course of dozens of street stalls – people who are old enough genuinely to remember the war are very often passionate advocates of the closer ties with Europe from which we benefited whilst within the EU; they have no truck with the isolationism illustrated by the vote to leave.

“We’re on our own now, aren’t we? Stuck out on a limb, with Putin on one side and probably Trump on the other. Should’ve stayed in!!” one man called as he went on his way. This was a theme to which a number of people referred: they are clearly anxious about the risk of war spreading  – not an issue most of us have had on our radar for decades until recently. Even the most ardent ‘Leave’-voter would surely admit that there is strength in numbers, and moreover that the UK’s defence forces are a shadow of what they once were? I wonder if there is still as much resistance in Britain as there once was to the notion of an ‘EU army’?

We found it hard – as we usually do, unfortunately – to engage many young British people, although there were some very welcome exceptions. However, it is rather alarming to realise that many young people don’t yet understand how their life chances have been affected by Brexit. On the whole they seem to be blissfully unaware of much of the impact, unless they are students wishing to study abroad or to go backpacking. Sometimes, it appears, this disengagement is because their parents and older relatives never mention the impact on their prospects and it’s impossible to know why this should be (although some seem to have hardly any meaningful communication with their parents at all, which I find very sad). It was heartening, however, for us to hear how – albeit without any clear understanding as yet – they mostly perceive Brexit in negative terms: both the notion, and the practice.

When those not old enough to vote in 2016 begin to want the advantages and the rights from which the rest of us benefited during the UK’s membership, perhaps, then, that national conversation, which is so badly needed, will finally begin.