A microcosm of the UK’s Brexit divide played out in a pub car park as the March to Leave passed through Yorkshire to be greeted by Remain-supporting counter-protesters. Chris Burn reports.
A pub car park in a West Yorkshire village on an overcast weekday morning is perhaps not the place you would expect to see a supercharged version of the arguments about the rights and wrongs of Britain’s supposedly impending departure from the European Union that have polarised opinion for the past three years.
But the use of The Beverley Arms in commuter belt Ackworth as the starting point for the latest leg of the ‘March to Leave’ walk from Sunderland to London on Thursday morning saw Leave voters draped in Union flags and Remain supporters in EU attire come face-to-face to argue their cause in debates that ranged from passionate but good-natured discussions to tense and acrimonious shouting matches.
But despite the disagreements, there was one word that repeatedly unified the two groups when asked to sum up the current political situation - “shambles”.
The 14-day march, organised by the Leave Means Leave campaign and supported by the likes of former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, Labour MP Kate Hoey and Morley and Outwood Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns, has been passing through Yorkshire with the intention of culminating in a rally in Parliament Square on March 29, the original date for the UK to leave the European Union.
Each day, 50 ‘core marchers’ who are doing the entire route are joined by 50 selected local Leave supporters - with today’s leg covering around 15 miles between Ackworth and Doncaster.
The latest leg saw the 100 walkers accompanied by dozens of supporters and given frequent hoots of support from passing motorists, while a small band of Remain supporters were also in attendance.
The overall march got off to a soggy start last Saturday and was greeted with widespread derision on social media from Remain supporters, with pictures posted comparing the group of marchers to scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Wicker Man.
John Longworth, chairman of Leave Means Leave and one of the march leaders, said: “It shows we are getting underneath their skin, doesn’t it? The sneerers on social media are trying to undermine it, a lot of the mainstream media are trying to either ignore it or decry it. But as we carry on down the country, it is getting bigger and bigger and people are really showing what they think about this. What they want is to leave on March 29, deal or no deal. Theresa May’s deal is remain in all but name.”
Longworth is a former director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce who left the post in March 2016 after coming out in favour of Brexit. He said that he now believes no deal would provide a superior outcome to Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement. “We would be paying £39bn for no say. The whole objective of Theresa May and the Government is to keep us as close as possible, make it miserable and we will want to go back in. If we leave with no deal, Britain will fly, we will prosper.”
He said he had no concerns about the potential impact of no-deal, despite a recent Government report warning of a nine per cent long-term hit to the economy, food shortages and the possibility of companies going out of business. The Confederation of British Industry has also repeatedly warned of the “significant risk” posed by no deal Brexit, as have major employers such as Jaguar Land Rover and Airbus.
Longworth said: “We know the Government and civil service have been doing major preparations for no deal for a very long time. What the Government is doing is telling scare stories.”
He added that companies such as JLR and Airbus do not have British owners, meaning they have less interest in what it best for the UK.
One of those who agreed with Longworth that Brexit should be good for the country was 42-year-old Paul Jordan from nearby Upton, who runs his own CCTV engineering company.
While he didn’t share Longworth’s optimism that a no deal Brexit would happen without issues, he put potential problems down to the Prime Minister.
“The country isn’t as ready as it could be. Theresa May has held back on no deal preparations and used that as leverage. She has tried to blackmail and bully people. I never expected it from a Conservative Prime Minister.”
Jordan said he had multiple reasons for voting Leave, partly from his experience of dealing with Asian suppliers for his business providing him with “far superior and far cheaper” equipment than those inside the EU and the single market, as well as concerns about the influence of the European Court of Justice over British laws.
He said one of his reasons for taking a day off work to attend the march is his belief that Leave voters are being unfairly characterised.
“The EU never really kept me up at night, other than the ECJ. But I’m here just because of the way things have gone. We are being treated like we didn’t know what we wanted,” he said. “People who voted Leave get overlooked now so we need something like this or we aren’t represented. We are not racists and misogynists. I just want a sensible exit from the EU.”
Jordan put the negative comments on social media about the march from Remain supporters down to jealousy.
"I do think the Remain camp are unhappy because they didn't think of it first. Remain would have done it if they had thought of it first but to be honest maybe Leave would have belittled in the same way. However, Leave have stolen a march on Remain with this."
Also at the event was 66-year-old bookmaker and Ackworth local Bernard Curran, brother of former Sheffield Wednesday footballer Terry Curran. Bernard was there on crutches following recent operations on his hips.
“If I hadn’t been on crutches, I would have taken a couple of weeks off and done the march from Sunderland to London. I want to get out of Europe but 80 per cent of MPs that are remainers are trying to stop Brexit. I voted Leave because I wanted to get our sovereignty back, make our own laws and stop leaving nearly £10bn a year in Europe that we could have spent in this country."
Elaine Corner, from Doncaster, said she was a former Labour member who left the party earlier this year over their Brexit stance. “I like [Doncaster North MP] Ed Miliband as a person but I am finished. My membership was due in January and I didn’t renew because of their stance of wanting to stay in the Customs Union.”
Leave Means Leave Yorkshire organiser Roger Tattersall, from Yeadon, is walking the full route and said the reaction to the marchers has been “fantastic”.
“People have been coming out to give us cakes and a shopkeeper came out with a full case of Lucozade. It has been really uplifting. This march has already achieved and it will achieve more. It is getting the message out that ordinary folk will not stand for democracy being undermined.”
One of the counter-protesters from Remain was 65-year-old retired civil servant Charles Elliott, who was holding an EU flag with a fellow Remain supporter.
“We think Europe is best for Britain, working together with our neighbours politically and economically to go forward. We are here to make people aware there is a voice for common sense and a positive future in Europe. The referendum was very disappointing but people didn’t vote against the EU, they voted against Cameron and austerity.”
He said the sole common ground he had found with the local Leave supporters was on Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. “The only thing we agree on is this deal is no good.”
Catrina Bennett, who runs a dog boarding kennels in Ossett, said her father had been unhappy about the growing influence of European Economic Community in the 1980s but she had come to her conclusions before voting Leave.
“I was looking to see the changes and the care the EU has for its people. But I saw the way they treated Greece and Italy, the open borders and the lack of infrastructure in this country.”
She said she felt let down by how the last three years have gone.
“I’m disappointed by the lack of faith and belief in this country. They don’t believe the people know what they are doing.”
Bennett was among those who had a long discussion with opposing Remain supporters and said despite her reasonable conversation with one man, neither had been able to change the other’s views.
“I’m open to the fact they know different things. But my experience tells me different. I have got to depend on my experience.”
With that, the marchers headed off towards Doncaster and eventually onto London next week for March 29. While where things will stand on Brexit in seven days’ time remains anyone’s guess, the country’s divisions appear here to stay for the foreseeable future.