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The signs that show we must keep fighting

Pro-Brexit Leave supporters gather in Westminster on Brexit Day. (Photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images) - Credit: In Pictures via Getty Images

We cannot leave it to the media or the opposition parties to hold Brexiteers to account. LIZ GERARD says Remainers must keep up the fight.

Pro-Brexit supporters gather to celebrate as the UK prepares to leave the European Union. Photograph: United Kingdom/PA. – Credit: PA

How’s the healing going? Are Leavers extending the hand of friendship? Putting an arm around the shoulder and saying “We know you’re suffering, but it’s what the country voted for. It’ll be all right”?

Are they heck.

It wasn’t the Brexit moment itself that made me weep, but the gentle Led By Donkeys “This is our star, look after it for us” message on the White Cliffs. Especially when set against the sheer nastiness of some of the Leave celebrations. Who goes to a party armed with a placard saying “Lock up the traitors” or fuel to burn a (fire-retardant fabric) flag?

There are videos of thousands joyfully dancing the night away. Good luck to them. But there is also an awful lot of footage of fat white blokes in “two world wars and a referendum” T-shirts or draped in Union flags, displaying all the charm of a 1980s hooligan crowd as they tear into real or imagined opponents.

The full poster put up in Winchester Tower. Photograph: Twitter. – Credit: Archant

Then there was the “Happy Brexit Day” notice stuck on the fire doors of a block of flats in Norwich telling residents to speak “the Queens English” [sic] or go back to whatever country they came from, “so we can return to what was normality before you infected this once great island”.

Nor was Remoaner-baiting restricted to random racists and individuals who may not have had every educational advantage (and, no, it doesn’t help our cause to set the hashtag #thick trending on the strength of three ill-informed women talking about why they voted Leave). Those who should – and do – know better were at it.

Former MEP Daniel Hannan revived the “Project Fear” mockery with a tweet starting: “One day in and so far: no food riots, no medicine shortages, no gridlocked motorways…” He was joined by Douglas Carswell – the only Ukipper ever to be elected as an MP – who tweeted “I see the planes are still flying. Local supermarket still full of food…Do you suppose the doom-mongers…are feeling a little foolish?”

As both men very well knew, the warnings of shortages and gridlocks were all about a no-deal Brexit and that the transition period means nothing – apart from having no say in the rules – is supposed to change until the end of the year.

Meanwhile in Downing Street, all that guff about our “friends and neighbours in Europe” was straight out of the window with briefings that the prime minister was furious because the EU had “reneged” on its Canada-style deal offer and “changed the rules”. It hadn’t. Perhaps he should have read his own Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration. Easier to cast the EU in its traditional role of enemy.

Just as the Telegraph did with France in a prominent story about British people who had “saved” a village but had now, along with about 160,000 other expats, been “stripped” of their voting rights. France hasn’t suddenly amended its electoral laws; we are the ones who changed the relationship, but the message is that it’s not fair because Europeans can still vote here.

For the moment. Our existing rules say that citizens of EU states have a vote, and the Electoral Commission confirms that there has been no indication that the position will change before the local elections in May.

That is small relief for up to five million “aliens” who are worried for their futures. During the referendum campaign, Hannan declared: “It is irresponsible to scare EU nationals in the UK by hinting that their status might change after Brexit. No one’s suggesting such a thing.”

Then there was talk that they might have to “register”. Now they have to “apply” if they want to stay beyond this year. People who have been in this country longer even than this ancient writer, people who have never lived anywhere else, have received letters telling them that if they do not provide the right paperwork, they may be deported to a country they’ve never 

The Home Office has been urging people to apply, and it has paid out £9m in grants to organisations trying to help an estimated 200,000 “hard to reach” people – including the homeless, battered women and children in care – to navigate the scheme. But that funding is due to end next month.

There are a lot of very worried and frightened people out there.

You might have thought that, in the spirit of “pulling the country together”, politicians and prominent Leavers would soften the rhetoric, that they would start fulfilling their promises rather than back-pedalling. But no. Look at Michael Gove for one. Before the referendum he famously declared: “the one thing that will not change will be our ability to trade freely with Europe”. But in the hours before we actually left, that became “we cannot guarantee frictionless trade with the EU”.

The Brexiters won the war, yet we have a government that seems uneasy with the concept of peace. It may have banished the word “Brexit”, but not the belligerence that went with it. And it’s scary.

Many spot parallels with 1930s Germany, particularly in attitudes – both official and among the populace – towards EU citizens. That seems melodramatic. But it is too easy to be complacent, to say “That couldn’t happen here”.

Look at that notice posted in the Norwich tower block, listen to the language of the hard Leavers, watch our foreign secretary bridle at Europe being friendly towards Scotland, read the briefings coming from Cummings and his team. These people don’t want “normal” life to resume; they’ve developed a taste for conflict.

Remainers lost the war. But there is another, more important, struggle ahead. We have to make sure that this country is every bit as vibrant and outgoing and warm and compassionate as the Leavers promised it would be. We have to make sure those in power keep their promises – we can’t rely on either the opposition or the media to hold them to account – and we have to do everything we can to make sure that everyone living here – wherever they came from – is safe. It’s a tough ask. Heaven knows how we do it. But somehow we must.

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