On the morning of 1 February 2020, as scenes of the previous night’s Brexit celebrations were being broadcast on the news, our Bath for Europe twitter feed was inundated with posts on the ‘Still here? Time to piss off and go home’ theme. Following the December 2019 General Election the mood was grim and, for a brief period, we felt directionless as our mission to stop Brexit had failed.
Bath for Europe was formed in the weeks after the 2016 Referendum, out of the remnants of the Stronger In campaign; one of the founders of our group was Wera Hobhouse, now the MP for Bath. Originally called Bath Stays – until someone pointed out that this sounded rather like a promotion for old-fashioned corsets – the group evolved and grew over the following four years.
First to leave were those who questioned our mission statement – of stopping Brexit on the grounds that remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market could be a sensible compromise. In hindsight, with the likelihood of a hard Brexit looming at the end of the transition period, might they have been right? But with evidence mounting including the government’s own impact assessments released in 2018 as well as the NHS assessments published in The Lancet showing that Brexit in all its forms would do untold damage, we stuck to our guns and prepared for battle.
We lost some supporters when we joined the People’s Vote campaign, but always felt we were in the vanguard of the ‘Stop Brexit’ movement, even though we then had to accept that if ‘the People’ voted against remaining in the EU, we would have to abide by it. We created press releases and thousands of leaflets, ran street stalls and targeted commuters. We bussed coachloads of protesters to rallies around the country and, with Bristol for Europe, chartered a ‘Remain Train’ to London, for the People’s Vote ‘one million march’ in March 2019.
The iconic blue berets – which became known as ‘bEUrets’ – were designed and made by Maggie, a key member of the group, while Dick designed fake bank notes to highlight the lies of the Leave campaign: a 50 guinea note with Rees-Mogg’s face, and another featuring Johnson and his £350 million promise to the NHS.
Those bank notes are now in the British Museum’s collection. Will they be the only reminder for future generations of the campaign to remain in the EU?
Despite feeling deflated as the countdown to 31 January 2020 began, we knew that giving-up was not an option. We might have failed to stop Brexit, but we had contributed to a movement where pro-EU voices were in the ascendancy, despite Johnson gaining an 80 seat majority in the 2019 General Election. The combined vote share for the Leave-supporting parties was 47.33% while the Remainer parties garnered 52.67%. Additionally, nothing had emerged to shift our opinion that Brexit would destroy the fabric of the UK – not just the economy, but also the well-being of all living here. And that was before the Covid-19 pandemic.
So, Bath for Europe’s long-term plan continues to be to make the case for rejoining our EU family of nations, and to keep the movement together. Holding the Government to account in its attempts to obfuscate and mask the reality of Brexit, is vital in making people aware of what is really happening – especially as the Government will use Covid as a convenient excuse for the impact next year of its poorly-conceived Brexit: during the last week of June 2020, all the focus was on ‘Super Saturday’ and ‘back to the pubs’ rather than on the UK’s 30 June deadline for requesting an extension to the transition period.
And, in the short-term, our focus is to support local EU citizens, emotionally and practically, in their applications for Settled Status (in 2016 there were around 5,000 in Bath alone). With this in mind, we organised an EU Citizens’ Fair at the end of March, 2020 with a range of speakers, including a legal expert, officers from the Council, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and our MP – but due to ‘lockdown’ it was held online. Zoom seems to be the best way of keeping communications open, and is currently the only platform for running our events, which are mainly Q-and-A talks led by speakers who can offer a positive, inclusive vision for the future.
So, it might seem as if the flags have been folded and the berets packed away – but, in truth, the European flame still burns brightly in our hearts. It may take a decade for the reality of Brexit and Britain’s ill-fated isolationist position to sink in, but when the time is right, we will be there to make the case for rejoining – and possibly our voices will then be heard, and the ‘Ode to Joy’ will not fall on deaf ears.
Jane Riekemann is a founder of Bath for Europe