As my wife and I planned an autumn trip to London to mark our 25th wedding anniversary, we arranged to see the usual things, including Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. But last month, we ended up visiting a venue that could become another tourist attraction — namely, the Brexit street protest.
Watching Brexiteers and Remainers flashing their picket signs wasn’t on our bucket list. But when our tour of British Parliament was canceled because lawmakers, called in on a Saturday to mull over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest Brexit deal, couldn’t accommodate outsiders traipsing the halls, my wife decided to seek a consolation prize.
“If we can’t go inside Parliament,” she told me, “we might as well see what’s going on outside.”
On a day billed as Super Saturday because of the high-stakes vote at the Palace of Westminster, we took the London underground to Parliament Square. A street preacher at the top of the tube stop was warning of Armageddon and reciting The Beatitudes, though the scene beyond the station didn’t seem like the end times to us.
Throngs of protesters filled the streets and green spaces, but the mood was really more festive than angry, reminding me of Mardi Gras back in Louisiana.
On a placard ribboned with yellow police tape, a demonstrator declared Brexit “a crime scene.” Seeking a second popular vote on Brexit, another activist riffed on a maxim of carpentry and urged her fellow citizens to “measure twice, cut once.” Another sign depicted Johnson and Donald Trump in a romantic embrace, portraying a populist bromance ripe for ridicule.
A smaller band of Brexiteers tried to hold up their end of the argument. One protester, in a more favorable nod to Trump, wore a cap with the words “Drain the Swamp.” Another Brexiteer donned a suit fashioned from a Union Jack, a striking display of sartorial nationalism.
If the scene recalled Carnival for me, it was probably because the high-spirited mockery among the Brexit protesters looked thoroughly ritualized, the punchlines so repeated and rehearsed that the demonstrators could have easily recited each other’s talking points.
It’s a familiarity bred from years of stalemate, as British leaders continue to deadlock on how — or if — to execute the terms of a 2016 decision by British voters to exit the European Union.
Parliament wasn’t the only iconic bit of London my wife and I missed. Big Ben, silenced and sheathed in scaffolding as it undergoes restoration, was off-limits, too. The great old clock’s failure to chime suggests a Britain where time has stopped, which is how the Brexit standoff sometimes felt.
Super Saturday didn’t live up to its promotion, with MPs voting 322 to 306 to withhold approval of Johnson’s Brexit deal. Later that evening, a Londoner who learned of the silver anniversary my wife and I were celebrating suggested that we return to England next year for our 26th.
Whether Brexit will be resolved by then is anybody’s guess.