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Lise Hand in London: 'Empires end, not with a bang, but with a last burst of delusion'

The party was a bit flat and the Prime Minister was not often spotted. Lise Hand reports from London.

Lise Hand Journalist-at-large

Lise Hand writes from London, Brexit night, Friday 31 January 2020…

NIGEL FARAGE, THE Ozymandias of Britain, strutted around the stage flinging patriotic platitudes into the crowd with a gusto reminiscent of his buddy Donald Trump flinging paper towels to the stricken in Puerto Rico.

Just before the countdown to the UK’s sundering from the European Union kicked off, he informed his audience that it was the ”most significant moment in modern British history”.

The last surviving fighter pilot from the Battle of Britain had died the previous day, otherwise he would surely have begged to differ.

Undaunted, Farage concluded with a triumphant blare. “The people have beaten the establishment. The real winner tonight is democracy!”

The hundreds of die-hard Brexiteers at the front of the stage all cheered and waved their union flags. Those at the far side of Parliament Square weren’t so lucky – the sound was dire and all that reached them was muffled shouty fragments.

A few roared in vain: “Turn it up Nigel!”

xinhua-photos-of-the-day Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

But most didn’t mind – he wasn’t saying anything they hadn’t heard before, and they were only there for the promised mega-party.

Except alas, there was none of the fun stuff – bands, fireworks and comedians which had been exultantly promised by the gurning Ground Zero of Brexit for the farewell knees-up.

The first two are prohibited on Parliament Square apart from a couple of annual exceptions, and there wasn’t a comedian in sight onstage. Jokers a-plenty to be sure, but then for many Brexit is no laughing matter.

Not for the first time in the last four years, London was a divided city. In June 2016 it had been an oasis of Remain amid a sea of Leave. And now once more the chasm yawned open in the heart of the capital.

For the most part, it all looked normal the city as a cloud-shrouded sun invisibly rose over London on Brexit Day. Union flags fluttered half-heartedly like a royal wave from a carriage along Pall Mall and atop public buildings. Around the streets of Soho, Oxford Circus and Covent Garden, it was business as usual, with locals weaving fast paths through crowds of wandering tourists and traffic dog-fights at every junction.

Only at the end of the broad boulevard of Whitehall which sweeps past 10 Downing Street and down to the Houses of Parliament was evidence that it was a day with a difference. From mid-afternoon a small group of Brexiteers festooned with flags and waving homemade banners proclaiming ‘FREE FROM EU’ and “EU NO MORE’ were kept entertained by a disc jockey on a small flatbed truck.

All strictly English bands of course: Madness, The Kinks, The Beatles, Oasis, The Jam.

Sheila Johnson – “no relation to Boris, sadly” – had travelled from Devon with some friends. “We wanted to be here when we took back our sovereignty, it’ll be something to tell our kids,” she said.

“We won’t be kicked around by the EU ever again.”

So what did she see in Britain’s future?

“More money, more jobs, less illegal foreigners.”

britain-london-brexit-celebration A pro-Brexit supporter dressed as a town crier celebrates Brexit at a gathering at Parliament Square, in London Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Down on a muddy square, an entertainer in a gold jacket was unsuccessfully channelling the spirit of Elvis and doing his best to lead a few people in a chorus of ‘Rule Britannia’, while a chap in a Boris wig and baggy suit capered for the cavalcade of cameras in search of a bit of colour.

There was a brief spike in patriotic fever when a Mini sped by hooting, a blue-and-yellow EU flag fluttering from the window, leaving in its wake a bitter torrent of invective.

But it was all a bit flat. The statue of Winston Churchill, surrounded by flags, wore a disgruntled expression. Perhaps he was contemplating the Brexiteers’ definition of ‘freedom’.

Maybe it needed the magic of darkness to fully bring the dream alive. After all, Brexit’s big moment suddenly had to compete for media and public attention with the arrival of the coronavirus to the country which has the bloody cheek to be no respecter of borders.

By 10pm, Parliament Square was full, but it was far from overflowing with the tens of thousands which had been touted to turn up to welcome the UK’s brave new dawn.

Nor were the portents of a mega-party particularly promising; an unenthusiastic light display of red, white and blue flickered languidly along buildings outside 10 Downing Street.

And where was Boris Johnson, lover of the spotlight and hooley aficionado? He was inside his residence hosting a soiree and reportedly marking the occasion with a flute of English sparkling white wine – none of those surrender bubbles, by God.

He didn’t even pop over the parapet with a live televised address to the nation, and instead released a speech on social media which gingerly walked the tightrope between rhetoric and reality.

“When I look at the potential of this country waiting to be unleashed I know that we can turn this opportunity into a stunning success,” he boomed, before adding the small-print terms and conditions: “And whatever the bumps in the road ahead I know that we will succeed.”

The prime minister himself was bumped off the top of the tv coverage by the arrival onstage of Nigel Farage.

britain-london-brexit-celebration Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Never mind that it was a crappy sound system, and a crowd containing a fair few pissed-up hard boys longing for the hey-day of football rumbles, shouting “YEW CAN STICK YOUR FACKING EU UP YOUR ARSE” while trying to out-stare the phalanxes of vigilant police patrolling the area.

Never mind that the UK was exiting the EU at 11pm GMT, which is midnight in Brussels. Nevermind that it was a less-than stellar line-up which had all the vibes of an end-of-pier talent show.

Never mind that Big Ben couldn’t bong as it was enshrouded by scaffolding. Sure didn’t they have a cardboard ‘Little Ben’ affixed with a clanging ‘Liberty’ bell and union flags, fashioned Blue Peter style by a Brexiteer and trundled through the crowd.

Never mind that the whole show was taking place against the Palace of Westminster, much of it also covered in tarpaulin for its £4 billion restoration to save the iconic edifice from crumbling into the Thames.

Never mind that almost half of the UK wasn’t having a good night, but was mourning the estrangement from their EU family and harbouring fears of what might lie ahead.

Never mind that despite the jubilation in Parliament Square and elsewhere in the UK, Brexit isn’t done, not by a long chalk.

Never mind that despite Boris Johnson’s honeyed words of healing, deep bitterness didn’t dissipate at 11pm last night. Under the singing of ‘Rule Britannia’ – with the lyrics helpfully provided on the big screen – there was a nasty edge to the celebrations – joy shot through with jingoism.

“Let us celebrate tonight as we have never done before,” exulted Nigel Farage.

The clock struck 11pm. Everyone cheered and sang a raggedy national anthem. And then everyone went home.

This is how empires end. Not with a bang but with a last burst of delusion and a long drawn-out profoundly sorrowful sigh.

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About the author:

Lise Hand  / Journalist-at-large

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