Hundreds of people across Yorkshire have joined ‘Brexit resistance’ groups - and are becoming increasingly hopeful that Britain may remain in the EU. Chris Burn reports.
“If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.” These words of inspiration for those in Yorkshire campaigning to stop Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union come from an unlikely source - Brexit Secretary David Davis.
Davis made the remark back in 2012 as he made the case for a referendum on the country’s continued membership of the EU by arguing against the anti-democratic way he believed operations were run from Brussels.
Despite disagreeing with the analysis surrounding the Yorkshire MP’s comment, for Richard Wilson, secretary of the Leeds for Europe group, the principle behind it is inarguable. Wilson says it is the “simple answer” as to why he and hundreds of others across the region are attempting to persuade the people of Yorkshire that last year’s Brexit vote was a mistake and a policy which should not be enacted. Their efforts are linked to the national Britain for Europe campaign, which involves dozens of groups around the country.
Wilson says: “We are trying to keep the issue alive and give people hope we can change the future in terms of Brexit. We definitely think it is not too late.
“The referendum gave a very simple binary choice between Remain or Leave. It didn’t give enough information to determine everything that happened afterwards.
“We believe the decision is reversible; even the person who wrote Article 50 has said it is reversible.”
Those involved admit their ideas are not universally popular and it is likely to take another referendum for the result of June 23, 2016, to be overturned. But there is a growing feeling of optimism among their ranks that their aims may just be possible.
Leeds for Europe was established in January last year and during that time has grown to have around 800 supporters, with around 100 people attending each of its public meetings and members frequently taking to the streets of the city to talk to shoppers, workers and passers-by about Brexit. The scope of the group is to increase next year and it will be renamed Yorkshire for Europe.
Wilson, an accountant, says: “We meet as many members of the public as we possibly can. The reaction is about half and half, a bit like the referendum itself. Some people certainly feel strongly one way, others in the other direction. Some people oppose what we are trying to do and there are plenty in the middle who thought the battle was over and done.”
But he says he has noticed a shift in the public mood in the past 12 months. “I would say the people who are pro-Brexit have become progressively quieter as this process has gone on. They are seeing the complexities of Brexit and finding it difficult to explain the advantages. Whereas on our side, people are feeling quite vindicated by what has happened since the referendum as we learn more about the damage that it is going to do.
“There is still some way to go but we think when further details of the Brexit deal are revealed to us, it would be right to let the people have the final say on whether we go ahead with it or not.”
While Theresa May has heralded the agreement with the EU that will allow for the start of trade talks, Wilson is unconvinced by the progress of the negotiations - and believes many members of the public feel the same.
“Given it has taken 18 months to get to this stage, I don’t have much confidence this Government will be able to deliver any kind of satisfactory outcome in the time that remains.
“I think the Government are actually helping us in the way they are handling the issue. They are causing a lot of ordinary people to think - ‘Is this a good idea?’”
Running parallel to the Leeds campaign is a similar group called York for Europe, which also runs a Facebook page called The 48 per cent York group, which has around 500 members - a figure that has more than doubled in the past year.
Knight, who is half-French and works for a software company, says the group regularly holds leafleting sessions by the railway station. “We are very conscious York is very much a Remain city and want to connect with people who maybe come from areas that aren’t. The reaction is mixed. You get people who are quite surprised to see us in a positive way, we have had comments from people saying, ‘We haven’t got anything like this near us, it is great what you are doing’. We get tourists and visitors saying ‘This is fantastic, we are sorry and we can’t believe what on earth is going on’.
“You get other people who just walk past and don’t want to know and some others who will say ‘We won, get over it’ but we smile and wave. There is a definite change in mood. In the early days, there was people who were positive about Brexit were much more vocal about it. That has slowed right down. I think the penny is beginning to drop.
“Things are happening now that are affecting people more directly. People who voted Leave or the indifferent are saying ‘This wasn’t what I expected’. It is starting to hit home with the cost of things after the fall in the pound and people are starting to realise the impact on the NHS.
“The stage we are at now is a debate which fleshes out the issues. I think we need to go down the route of a referendum on what the options are and if people don’t like the deal, then we remain. This isn’t about saying the people who voted Leave were wrong or didn’t understand. It is about saying now we know what’s what and all the things that were painted to be Project Fear were actually Project Fact, let’s give people the chance to reconsider.”
Neill Schofield, the Sheffield-based secretary of Yorkshire and Humberside branch of European Movement, is another who believes there has been a gradual shift of opinion about Brexit.
Schofield welcomed last week’s vote by MPs to give Parliament a legal guarantee of a vote on the final Brexit deal struck with the EU. “I think it will help. All these things are steps on a road and not going to solve everything. But we are in a Parliamentary democracy and we need to make sure Parliament has a clear role in this.
“The European Movement thinks it is best for us to stay in. How that is achieved is still to be clear. But if MPs think they want the public to have a say on the final deal, that would be one way forward. We can’t leave these really important decisions just to Theresa May and a small group of people around her.”
He feels there is a growing chance Britain won’t leave the EU.
“I think we might avoid it but it won’t be easy. I don’t take it for granted, certainly not, but I think it is possible that as time goes on it will become more and more apparent there are downsides that perhaps people didn’t realise when they were voting.
“It is still all to play for.”
May’s ‘mission’ to deliver Brexit
Cabinet ministers are due to hold their first discussion about what Britain’s “end state” relationship with the EU should look like today.
The talks are expected to expose the divides among the country’s most senior politicians on how the nation’s future relationship with Europe should work.
It comes after Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament last week that Brexit will be going ahead in a “smooth and orderly fashion” as talks move on to how trade will work.
She said: “We are going to leave, but we will do so in a smooth and orderly way, securing a new deep and special partnership with our friends while taking back control of our borders, money and laws once again.
“That is my mission. That is this Government’s mission.”