How should you dress for a Brexit protest? MIA JANKOWICZ wonders whether the Remain cause could do with a makeover.
This weekend’s anti-Brexit march is expected to be the biggest yet. Central London will be filled with EU flags, blue-painted faces, blue jumpers and berets with yellow stars, and other imaginative outfits in an enthusiastic outpouring of passion for a People’s Vote campaign that is as close to success as it has ever been.
I will be covering the march for The New European and will be supporting its message with every fibre of my being. And yet I find myself wondering if the Remain cause might be face-painting itself into a corner. Are the yellow-and-blue carnival tactics of its most vocal supporters having a limiting effect?
I’m not the only one thinking this. The organisers of Rally 4 Our Rights – another pro-EU protest, held in London last weekend – had an interesting instruction for people going along, asking them to “dress seriously”.
As the organisers explained on Twitter: “We feel very strongly that the time for dressing up in blue etc has passed. If we want to be taken seriously, we need to look like the thing MPs fear the most: The electorate. So we would love everyone coming to dress seriously, to be taken seriously.”
The suggestion provoked some intense debate on Remain Twitter. Madeleina Kay, the activist known as EU Supergirl and one of the movement’s best-known faces, responded: “If you think that people using costume do not have ‘serious’ conviction in the beliefs they are standing up for then you are seriously misunderstanding what is an impactful protest. This is not a dictatorship. Stop trying to control how people express themselves. Sick of this.”
Kay – who is seldom seen in the same custom-made, colourful outfit twice – has done more than most to bring a sense of joy and fun to the anti-Brexit cause. While Remainers are accused of an obsession with the drier points of economics, she has infused the cause with humour and enthusiasm.
Like Steve Bray – or Mr Stop Brexit, as he is better known – she has inspired many, many others to get involved in the fight and has made sure the voice of Remain is heard as far and wide and frequently as possible.
Whether in Parliament Square, at party conferences or at European summits, they and others have never let up in telling everyone that Brexit is not considered a settled issue anywhere in the UK. These protesters, in their imaginative way, have often stood in for the thousands who cannot always be there. They have – in the case of Steve Bray and his merry band, quite literally – never stopped banging the drum.
And their brand of protest has been startlingly effective: Theatricality and protest are inseparable – not only as a way of catching media attention, but as a statement against forces of control and repression. The first step in Gandhi’s formula for successful protest starts with “first they laugh at you”. Playfulness, subversion, clowning and absurdity have power because they produce a temporary place in which other situations, are imaginable – and if they’re imaginable, they can have political weight.
It is no accident that carnivals – such as Notting Hill, or Pride – are direct antecedents of situations of stark control and repression. And without wanting to suggest that Remainers experience anything remotely like the repression that the Caribbean or LGBT+ communities felt at the birth of their festivals, it has until recently been an infuriating struggle to get the main parties to acknowledge that the Remain perspective is mainstream.
But this, however is the point – Remain is mainstream. Our view may be silent in the corridors of power, but we are not a minority. Almost every poll in the last two years has said that Remain would win a new referendum.
But to really get their attention, politicians need to see that Remain voters could win them a general election. That’s the point the Rally 4 Our Rights were making.
Of course I’m not saying there’s no place for the people who want to make the effort and liven up the crowd. But an MP’s bottom line is the great masses of voters who keep them in power – those who are too pressured with ordinary life to sew an eye-catching costume or stay out banging the drum at all hours – but still motivated to hit the streets.
One of the hardest things for a campaign to achieve is to get people out to protest. Not everybody is an exhibitionist, and not everybody wants to feel part of a crowd. And a carnival approach to protest can deter some: There are plenty of people out who are concerned about Brexit and ready to be won over to our cause, but who are perhaps not as enthusiastic in their support for the EU as the most vocal Remainers. We need to do everything we can to encourage them to join our ranks.
When the plainclothes protester comes out – and comes out en masse – that’s when MPs take note. Looking again at Gandhi’s formula, we are much further on from “first they laugh at you”, stage of the discussion, and much closer to “and then you win” stage of the discussion. Perhaps, now, we need to look like it.
Ultimately, of course, people should wear whatever they want this Saturday and protest peacefully in any manner they choose. For me, though, ‘serious’ sounds like a good dress code.