The Sunderland People’s Vote march was on Saturday 6th October. The weather was good and the muster point was Mowbray Park. The “big name” on the bill was Anna Soubry MP. I must confess to being a big fan of Anna – I never thought I would say that about a Conservative. She is one of the few prepared to make a positive case for immigration and argues eloquently and passionately against a hard Brexit. I was delighted, if not surprised, that she had come off the fence and decided to support a people’s vote.
Sunderland is not a city I go to often, I live North of Newcastle and if I need to do any shopping etc. Newcastle is the obvious choice. Electorally however I had happy memories of Sunderland. Sunderland South seemed to be always the first constituency to declare in a GE and Chris Mullen (one of my favourite MPs) was guaranteed to romp home for Labour – always starting GE night with a positive result. Newcastle was rather envious of the Sunderland electoral counting speed and has been catching up for years.
On the fateful night of the Brexit referendum, Newcastle indeed declared first with a narrow Remain result. Sunderland famously declared next and voted Leave by a large margin. It was at that point I was convinced that my worst fears were realised – I had been expecting Leave to win up till Jo Cox’s murder but was hoping the country would step back from the brink. I went to bed shortly afterwards, dreading a Leave result and hoping for at least one good night’s sleep before calamity struck. The sleep was not good and the result worse.
I had been to Anti-Brexit events in Newcastle and Tynemouth earlier in the year. I had missed the big London march on the 23rd June as we were hosting a neighborhood party in memory of Jo Cox. There was the odd bit of heckling etc. in both the Newcastle and Tynemouth events, but nothing major. This was sadly about to change as there was an EDL type counter demonstration at Sunderland.
Our son had a rugby match at Kingston Park so was not present (just as well in retrospect), but my wife and myself took the Metro to Sunderland and walked to the Park and got kitted up with People’s Vote and OFOC stickers and EU and Union flags. As the crowd, of several hundred, gathered I spotted Femi. A very pleasant surprise as he was not on the billing – I am a great admirer of his videos. I went across to speak to Femi and briefly said hello. There was a local activist who wanted an impromptu video and discussion of how small the fishing industry was in comparison to the NE industrial base, so I hung discretely in the background.
Anna Soubry arrived. Hi Anna! She looked better and about 5 years younger than on television. I like to think she is finally at peace with herself. Putting country before party is particularly difficult in the Tory party. It is a real mark of true courage, particularly in these strange times.
Meanwhile the side entrance to the park that we had entered by was being used as the muster point for an EDL like counter demonstration. Plenty of noise and a rather ugly mood. The counter demonstration was fairly small – two dozen perhaps, in comparison to the hundreds on the People’s Vote march.
The march started and on exiting the park through the main gate we were kept separated by the police from the EDL crowd who were jeered as we walked past. One shoved a mobile phone almost in my face – possibly intending to intimidate me whilst videoing. I glared at her with a contemptuous look -“do you want me to shove it in your face?” – she said. I just walked on. Just as well my son wasn’t there. When I described the incident later and asked what would he have done? He said “I would have grabbed the phone off her and smashed it on the floor!”
We marched through the Sunderland streets to Keel Square Chanting slogans such as “Hey hey Theresa May give us all a final say” and “what do we want?” – “a people’s vote” “when do we want it?” “we want it now!” We ignored the jeering of the counter demonstration. Femi is made of braver stuff and engaged with some of them. Heroic!
This. Was. Exhausting. I tried to engage with an EDL-affiliated group… Yes, I know. But I thought it was important to at least try before things inevitably turned nasty.
I can't be bothered subtitling this. But there are some gems in here. #March4Sunderland pic.twitter.com/3HNhTCT0dW
— Femi (@Femi_Sorry) October 6, 2018
We arrived at Keel Square where a stage had been set up and there was a dancing group in EU blue doing various numbers, finishing with a spirited dance to Abba’s “Waterloo”. The compère must have been a music teacher at a local school and introduced a number of young singers, finishing with a version of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” A very good showcase of talent in the NE.
The speeches began. The counter demonstration set up on the left of the stage and tried with little success to disrupt things, with chanting “liar! liar! liar!”, “traitor! traitor! traitor!” and trying to drown out the speeches with horns and sirens. The quality of the speeches were uniformly high but a few stood out.
Lucy Gabrielle Dixon a local teenager was introduced. At that point counter-demonstrators pushed in right in front of the stage and tried to intimidate her.
Never seen anything like it a bunch of thugs assault @peoplesvote_uk in #Sunderland bringing shame on a great city and its people and our country. We will not give in to the #Brexit pic.twitter.com/xUahDZkYOu
— Anna Soubry MP (@Anna_Soubry) October 6, 2018
Lucy was visibly shaken, seemed nearly in tears, but gave an impassioned speech about her dreams of a career in the travel industry and her admiration for John Hayes, who started with a corner of a shop in Seaham – 6 miles south of Sunderland and was now in charge of an empire of 147 retail branches. She believed that in order to succeed that she needed to visit and get experience of the places she was recommending to her clients, e.g. Spain, which would get far more expensive and difficult for her after Brexit.
There was an excellent speech by Dr Aidan King on the devastating effect of Brexit on staffing levels on the already overstretched NHS. This was accompanied by shouts of “Liar!” and “Traitor!” by the EDL counter demonstration, which Aidan ignored with the contempt that they deserved.
Anna Soubry was excellent and passionate. Superb oratory. She highlighted the likely slow decline of Nissan and the NE industrial base. She was really annoyed by the demonstrators and didn’t hold back. What is wrong with this parliament? Why to we have the Maybot and the worst government in my lifetime where there is such talent about?
Steve Gavin (Veterans for Europe) finished off with a passionate defence of the EU as a peace project. Excellent stuff and something that should have been emphasised far more during the referendum. Gordon Brown did a very good video from Coventry Cathedral on the same theme, which was in contrast to the relentless negativity and project fear of Cameron’s Remain campaign. Even the NDL yobs were less vocal. I think Veterans must be one of the few groups they still have some respect for.
We finished with the compère saying that we should all come together and join in a rendition of “God Save the Queen.” To my surprise and wife’s astonishment I sang it at the top of my voice. As an Irish Republican it was something I never thought I would do but it seemed right in the moment. I don’t think the NDL joined in but at least they stopped jeering.
Postscript added Mon 8th Oct 19:47
The compère was in fact Dr Jacky Collins of Northumbria University – a colleague for many years, but in a different faculty and building so our paths had not crossed. She was amused rather than annoyed by her description as a music teacher!
There has been a good response on Twitter and one great bit of news
Postscript added Tues 9th Oct 08:17
Just to confirm the far right thuggish types are in no way typical of Sunderland. North East for Europe have tweeted a picture of a Sunderland Brexitometer, which shows very considerable support for People’s Vote.