Pro-Europe campaigners across Yorkshire are joining forces in a last-ditch attempt to stop Brexit taking place. Chris Burn reports on a movement desperate to turn back the clock.
Coming to a village hall or town centre near you - Yorkshire’s Brexit resistance. While the Prime Minister may have set out details of her plan for Britain to quit the European Union this week, a growing band of people across Yorkshire believe they can stop it happening.
Events are being held in Leeds, York, Sheffield and Baildon over the next few weeks as part of a national campaign determined Britain should remain part of the EU despite June’s referendum result. Among those trying to establish the campaign in Yorkshire is former Liberal MP Michael Meadowcroft, who claims Brexit was ‘mis-sold’ to voters with a ‘pack of lies’ such as the claim the NHS would receive an extra £350m a week and that Turkey would be joining the EU.
Meadowcroft, who represented Leeds West between 1983 and 1987, is attempting to set up a county-wide committee with the intention of recruiting around 500 active members in the next 12 months. He hopes it will hold public meetings across the county, lobby MPs and peers and produce pro-EU leaflets.
“I think the likelihood of getting a second referendum after the end of disastrous negotiations is very high. Having had the one referendum, it is unavoidable to have a second. You can’t just reverse it in Parliament. I can’t see Brexit ever happening. The idea that 26 miles from mainland Europe you can simply cut yourself off and unravel the Good Friday agreement is incredible.”
Meadowcroft will be one of the speakers on Thursday night at a ‘Brexit briefing’ in Baildon, West Yorkshire, which is expected to be attended by around 50 people. The meeting has been arranged by former Liberal Democrat councillor and retired schoolteacher John Cole, who also optimistically believes Brexit can be prevented.
“If leaving can be stopped from taking place it would concentrate the minds of the other 27 countries that we need to do something about the direction the EU is taking. With the shock of the Brexit vote and the real possibility that we leave, the other 27 would listen very closely.
“It is like someone being on the point of walking out on a marriage and both parties saying ‘Let’s give it one more try’.”
It is intended that the Yorkshire campaign efforts would be linked to the national Britain for Europe campaign, which has more than 60 organisations across the country with 27,000 supporters. Emilie Knight, co-chair of The 48 per cent York group, which has around 200 members on Facebook is organising a ‘Cake Not Hate’ event in the city centre this weekend to spread awareness of their campaign, which is already aligned with Britain for Europe.
Knight, who is half-French and works for a software company, campaigned for Remain and says she was so ‘fired up’ by the outcome she helped establish the campaign group.
“I’m European and very pro-EU. There are things that need to be sorted out with it and I don’t think it is perfect.
“But campaigning was a real eye-opener to me. I have lived in lots of multi-cultural places. Living in York, I had this rather naive idea that we British were terribly tolerant and understanding.
“What shocked me when I was campaigning was that every single person that said they were voting Leave claimed immigration as the reason.
“My view was it was going to be a vote for Remain but very, very tight.
“The result was an absolute bombshell. I was in tears, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. The endgame is just to call an end to this nonsense. It was built on dishonesty and bad campaigning.
“I don’t think it is a lost cause. I won’t give up until I’m forced to. There is always the scenario that if it does go ahead then we start again and fight like hell to go back in. But I don’t think it is a done deal. As reality kicks in and prices start to go up, as it starts to affect people, I think people will become more active.”
Harry Grayson, director of communications for Britain for Europe, denies the campaign undermines democracy.
“The beauty of democracy is that it allows for the voicing of opposing opinions. The very fact that a referendum was held in June, following the first one in 1975, is testament to the health of British democracy up until that point. Following June 23, however the referendum result has been seized to progress party political priorities in what is fast amounting to a crisis.
“Those who claim our campaign is undemocratic are actively seeking to silence the voice of those who have, and continue to, oppose Brexit. Democracy started with a vote and it is ludicrous to claim that it might end with one.”
In Sheffield next month, around 150 people are expected to attend an event called ‘Brexit – Where are we and what can we do?’ which has been organised by a lobbying group called European Movement UK.
The organisation, which was originally founded with the help of Winston Churchill in 1948, is now campaigning nationally for a new referendum once the terms of Brexit are known.
Solicitor Matthew Ambler, local secretary for the Yorkshire and Humberside branch of European Movement, admits it is likely Britain will leave the EU but he believes there is a possibility Britain may rejoin one day.
“Our position is we should always be in the EU. Where we perhaps differ from others is that we recognise the vote as cast on June 23 is what it was. Never say never but the direction of travel doesn’t look like it will change. That does not stop us campaigning to go back in.
“If the Government changed its mind and we don’t leave - fantastic, I would be very happy. But we don’t live in that world. The European Movement will continue and will probably do what it was doing before 1973 - trying to make the case for Britain to rejoin.
“A decade is a long time in politics. If EU growth was to far exceed the UK and protected workers’ rights better, who knows?”
Ambler, from Huddersfield, campaigned for Stronger In ahead of the referendum and said those on the ground speaking to voters had ‘seen the way it was heading’ before the result.
“To say there was one reason why people wanted to Leave would be lying but the biggest concerns were jobs and immigration.
“There were people who didn’t like the Conservative government and said it was a vote on them. I even spoke to someone who wanted the second coming of Christ.
“People were getting at issues that weren’t particularly European related.
“My own family were split, certain parts voted Leave. I see the arguments but to blame the European Union is the wrong thing.”
While many campaigners may be true believers in Britain remaining in the EU, convincing even Remain backers that the vote should be overturned may prove a challenge. One of those planning to attend the Baildon meeting is Stefanie McDonald, a trainee social worker from Guiseley. She says the Brexit vote left her ‘really, really angry and just heartbroken’ but believes the result should stand.
“I think we have got to respect the vote - we lost that vote. But what we need is more information and more clarity on the consequences.
“When Theresa May is talking about stopping the customs union we should be saying what exactly is she putting in place?
“I don’t have my own business but if I did I would be quite worried about her strategy.
“What we need is more information and more clarity on the consequences. There is a lack of understanding that really needs to be addressed.
“My grandparents were Polish immigrants themselves and immigration is something I feel quite strongly about.
“My Polish grandmother gets worried every time she hears about a crackdown, even though she has been here since she was 18.
“People who aren’t immigrants don’t understand you never feel totally secure here. It is really sad.”
Doreen Kotroczo, a 75-year-old history teacher from Baildon, has been married to her Hungarian husband Vince, since 1963.
The pair will be attending the meeting to ‘hear other points of view and get more information’ but believe it is too late for the result to be changed.
She says: “For all sorts of reasons we have just been totally disgusted by the whole tone and manner of the Brexit campaign which was just based on a lot of lies and half truths and misinformation.
“We were just totally astounded by the result. It was absolutely horrendous.
“It was claimed we are taking back our sovereignty but we are not because we never lost it. Britain is an independent sovereign state.
“When I look back over long periods of British and European history, I don’t think there has ever been a time when we have had peace and stability but we have since the EU was founded.
“That is not entirely the result of the EU but to large extent it is.
“I’m very concerned about the rise of these right-wing parties in Europe. I’m also concerned about the stability of the UK because Scotland voted to stay part of the EU.”
Vince says: “My granddaughter was so upset she wants to take Hungarian citizenship. I think it is too late to change anything now. We can talk about it but what can be done?
“It is strange. I got my British citizenship after ten years of being here and now things are turning around. I fear Britain will end up as an off-shore little island.”
Doreen adds: “It should have been Parliament in the first place that voted In or Out. But it is too late for that now. It is a matter of what we can salvage.”
‘Betraying the will of the people’
Efforts to overturn the referendum result ‘betray the will of the British people’, Ukip’s Mike Hookem has said.
The Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire MEP says campaigners ‘seem unwilling or unable to accept democracy’.
“The British people turned out in massive numbers to have their say in the referendum, and for a multitude of varied reasons, the majority sent a loud and clear message to Leave.
“Despite this, the effort by ‘hardcore’ Remainers to undermine the ‘Leave’ vote started the day after the result and has included everything from belittling and patronising voters; to High Court challenges aimed at derailing the Brexit process.
“It is now time for this fighting to stop. The fact is, the UK is leaving the EU.
“Creating yet more animosity on an already divisive issue is not going to help anyone and could lead to further political disengagement and public apathy in politics.
“Most people I speak to from both sides of the argument accept the result, but have had enough of the bickering.
“People now want to move forward; get on with the job of leaving the EU, and make the UK a success.
“What they don’t want is a continuation of the referendum campaign by other means, simply because it does not suit the viewpoint of a small minority of people.
“As for those who say they will campaign for the UK to re-join the EU in time, I say it is their democratic right to do so. However, I would ask that they at least give independence a chance first.
“The most important question today is how we should shape the UK in the post-Brexit era, not whether we should or shouldn’t leave the EU. That question has already been resoundingly answered.”