“We had words on the street, but the argument’s not over”

Today Devon for Europe publishes Words on the Street, an e-book about its street stall campaign to stop Brexit. Here its authors, Simon Chater and Rosemary Schonfeld, write about the book’s genesis and contents. They hope to persuade you to download a copy and read it.

Simon Chater writes:

Though British by birth, I have always felt European by temperament and inclination. I studied languages at university, did the dishes and waited at table  in France and Italy, trained as a translator, fell in love with European culture, literature and music, and married a German.

I’ll never forget the morning of 24 June 2016, when the referendum result was announced. It felt like a kick in the stomach. For months I was so stunned that I could not formulate any kind of response. Then, in January 2017, came Mrs May’s Lancaster House speech, outlining a hard Brexit that assaulted my citizenship, rights and identity. Though I had never acted politically in my life before, I knew I had to do so now. An online search revealed the existence of Devon for Europe; I joined, started volunteering on street stalls, began leading stalls in and around South Devon and posting Facebook reports on them in mid-2017, then took on coordination of the county-wide stalls effort in early 2018.

Over roughly the same period, Rosemary was responding to political events in her own way, by writing and posting Brexit haikus – commentaries on political events styled in the concise 17-syllable Japanese poetic form. I had begun to admire these before I met their author in person.

It was while we were standing next to each other on a street stall that we discovered that friends, family and Devon for Europe supporters were, separately, telling us both the same thing: that once the fight to stop Brexit was over, we should collate our writings and publish them. It made sense to join forces to do that – and Words on the Street is the result.

The book is a kind of diary of Brexit. It reflects our own thoughts and feelings as events unfolded, but it’s also jam-packed with the testimony of others – the members of the public we met and spoke with on the streets of Devon’s cities and towns, the people whose lives are, and will be, affected by Brexit.  

Their voices ring in my ears even now, nine months after our last stall. I remember the sadness of continental EU citizens, who told us, haltingly, of their plans to leave the country they had come to call home; the lost opportunities and blighted lives of small business people, students and artists for whom tariff-free trade and freedom of movement were vital; the moral numbness of unrepentant Leavers, unable to acknowledge their part in others’ suffering, even when these others were friends, family, neighbours; the raw anger of committed Leavers, as deadlines passed and we still hadn’t left the EU; the blatant racism and emotional ill-health of so many, such that we often felt like the only humans left on a planet overtaken by aliens. Perhaps worst of all, we encountered many people for whom Brexit simply didn’t matter. If fascism feeds on hatred of the other, its two handmaidens are the apathy and complacency epitomized by the words we heard most often on their lips: “I’m all right” and “It couldn’t happen here”. We answered, “You won’t be all right” and “It is happening here”; but they would not listen, shrugged us off, walked away.

Yet we also heard voices that warmed our hearts and gave us hope. The wisdom of children, who went to the crux of the issue in a way that politicians so seldom do: the 8-year-old girl in Exeter who, when asked why the EU mattered, said “because our country is part of a team”; the joy of talking with politically aware students, always open to new ideas and instantly willing to join us when reminded of Burke’s aphorism about the triumph of evil when good people do nothing; the kindness of strangers, who brought us cake or coffee (and, on one occasion, bendy bananas) to keep us going; the generosity of the Totnes ice-cream maker who gave us free ices on a boiling summer’s day; the courage of the small businesses that nailed their colours to the mast and hosted a stall, despite the risk of losing customers; the tears of joy in the eyes of Remainers when they came across us for the first time and no longer felt alone; brave souls who intervened on our behalf when we were under fire from racists and bigots; the Torquay man with “We are all immigrants” emblazoned on his shirt; the Newton Abbot man who said he had voted Leave but “was man enough to admit [he] might have made a mistake”.  

Best of all were the voices of Leavers who had changed their minds. Sometimes the change came in a dramatic, Damascene conversion, the scales falling from their eyes while they stood talking with us on the stall. This was invariably the occasion of hugs, tears and a round of applause, along with a proffered cup of tea or EU cupcake (a speciality of one of our volunteers). More often the change had come gradually and we heard it as a quiet, regretful admission that, given another vote, they would choose Remain. We admired the courage and decency of all who admitted they had called it wrong in 2016. Without exception, they said their awakening came when they realized how much and how badly they had been lied to.

Ultimately, when the voices fell silent, we knew that, beyond the arguments on topics such as economics, environment, sovereignty and so on, Brexit is a spiritual or moral issue. It’s a choice between light and dark, right and wrong. What kind of a person am I? What kind of a country are we? Do we embrace the other, building bridges; or do we shut them out, erecting fences? That choice is what our book is really about.

Throughout our campaign, the energy, commitment, courage, compassion and humour of my fellow volunteers impressed me deeply. Our book is dedicated to them, in grateful recognition of all that they did to stop what is arguably the worst foreign policy decision our country has ever taken.

The national argument on Brexit isn’t over. As I write, our Prime Minister is proposing to break international law to secure his pet project – a proposal that marks a new low in our country’s descent into lawless authoritarianism – a hallmark of full-blown fascism. Brexit is a scam that served as a ladder to power for the most reckless and mendacious Prime Minister we have ever had. It now threatens to trash what is left of Britain’s reputation abroad, bring accelerating economic decline at home when we can least afford it, and lead to the death of the UK as a single sovereign state. It’s a cruel irony that, in leaving the union we belong to, we should destroy the union we are.

The fight to turn Britain back from this disastrous course must and will go on.

Rosemary Schonfeld writes

I became a regular volunteer – a “stallwart”, as we call ourselves – on Devon for Europe’s street stalls in 2017. In the run-up to the 2016 referendum I had campaigned for Stronger In, but felt so let down by their London-centric approach and sloppy, ineffectual organization in Devon that it took a few months before I was prepared to try, once again, to campaign at street level against Brexit.

On average I would say I did three stalls a month, compared to Simon’s two, three or even four per week. His energy and commitment were an inspiration to us all. However, what made me prepared to come back each time for an experience I could never call pleasurable, because of the relentless abuse to which we were subject, was the other volunteers. After the first couple of stalls I briefly thought, “I can’t take this. I’m a sensitive musician”, before acknowledging that abuse is horrible for anyone, whoever you are, whatever you do, and in this respect I was no more sensitive than anyone else and that group solidarity mattered. Re-entering the fray, I found myself part of an extraordinary collection of individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, walks of life and political persuasions, who all had this in common: we knew the referendum and its result were outrageously flawed and harmful to our country – and we all felt compelled to act.

I have an activist background. Hardly any of the other volunteers had had any experience of activism, but unlike the many who disagreed with the Leave project but were reluctant to do anything about it, these people were prepared to give up their time and sometimes their wellbeing to get involved and fight what they knew to be wrong. My life has been greatly enriched by knowing and working with them.

After nearly three years we almost succeeded, and would have done so if not for the incompetence and weakness of the leaders of the two main opposition parties, who failed to grab the opportunity presented to them to bring down the government and, in so doing, squandered the efforts of thousands of campaigners. If not for their foolish actions, we almost certainly would have got the People’s Vote and thus, going by the vast majority of opinion polls in 2019, would still be in the EU.

Our stall volunteers woke up on the morning of 13 December 2019 heartbroken and devastated. I hope all who read this book will become more aware and appreciative of these wonderful people who fought as hard as they could to stop the disaster that is Brexit.

As we all watch, incredulous at the breathtakingly destructive actions of the Johnson government, I can’t help feeling we’ll be back. And I hope that, next time, many more people will feel the compulsion to act that we felt and still feel.