By Elizabeth Howcroft and William James
LONDON, Jan 31 (Reuters) – Singing patriotic songs and waving Union Jack flags, thousands of Britons flocked to a muddy patch of grass outside parliament on a damp Friday night to watch their moment of history: Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Britain’s 2300 GMT exit from the EU ends 47 years of union with Europe. It also draws a line under a bitter and divisive four-year wrangle over whether, when and how the country should cut its ties to the bloc.
While Prime Minister Boris Johnson, synonymous with Brexit because of his role in the 2016 ‘Leave’ campaign, kept a low profile at a private reception in his office, more than 5,000 people gathered just down the road to loudly celebrate the moment.
“This is a fantastic day, A really really fantastic day. It’s been a long time coming,” said Tony Williams, 53, from south-east London.
“We are free, from 11 o’clock, we have done it, and it is a great, great pleasure. We have done it.”
Brexit supporters young and old packed into Parliament Square to hear Brexit’s other talisman, campaigner Nigel Farage, and revel in a mix of nostalgia, patriotism and defiance.
“I never thought it would happen – my goodness! I’m not going to get drunk or anything but it’s a remarkable thing to happen given that the whole establishment of this country was in favour of the European project,” said Christopher Cook, 73, business owner from Amersham, near London.
A video montage providing a potted history of Britain’s relationship with Europe drew pantomime boos for proponents of the EU like former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, while anti-EU figures like Johnson, Farage and Margaret Thatcher were loudly cheered.
Attendees sang Land of Hope and Glory, with words projected on a big screen, there were impromptu bursts of the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’, and a live band performed ‘Rule Britannia’ – a centuries-old song celebrating Britain’s one-time naval dominance.
The crowd spilled into surrounding streets, where many defied a ban on alcohol despite a heavy police presence. Two men wearing Farage masks said the number of officers was oppressive and threatened to spoil a good night.
However, as the clock ticked down on a decision that has torn at the constitution and divided the nation from cabinet table to family dinner table, there was no visible counter-protest from the millions who voted to remain in the EU.
Some self-professed ‘remainers’ had come along to witness the moment for themselves.
“It’s quite a dark day for me personally but of course I’m here to celebrate,” joked David Robinson, a 38-year-old finance worker, clutching a can of lager.
“I couldn’t not turn up. When the Berlin wall was coming down, you couldn’t just go home and have a cup of tea.”
(Reporting by William James and Elizabeth Howcroft; Writing by William James; Editing by Giles Elgood)