LONDON — On Brexit night, Britain looked like it has for more than three years: split into two very different worlds.
Brexiteers popped corks and cheered the 11 p.m. Brexit prize at parties around the nation, while pro-EU campaigners held vigils and worried about what the future might bring.
EU nationals concerned about their status in the U.K. wrapped themselves in a queue around the City Hall building in London Bridge — the office of London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Belgian buns and waffles were served as they flocked to seek legal advice and emotional support.
Piotr Turlik, 77, brought his French wife, who has been struggling with her settled status application. He came to the U.K. from Poland aged six during World War II, and is now a British national.
“One is rather shocked at this country declaring its freedom day when I know what real freedom — or lack of freedom — was in Poland in the ’70s when I visited my family,” he said. “It seems totally cynical to say today is a day of freedom when in actual fact it’s a day of enormous uncertainty.”
Povales Naoseda, 62, a Lithuanian national, said he does not feel welcome in Britain any more. “People have a lot of questions, but no answers,” he added.
Khan spoke reassuring words to the gathered crowd in the atrium of the bulbous City Hall building, with flags from European countries hung around the spiraling walkway above. “This is a momentous day,” he said. “For some it will be a cause for celebration, but for me, and I’m sure for many of you, the overriding emotion will be of heartbreak.”
Speaking to POLITICO afterward, Khan said the nation is “absolutely” still divided, but added: “The key thing is we have got to come together now as a country.”
EU nationals and campaigners wait to hear from London Mayor Sadiq Khan at City Hall on Brexit night pic.twitter.com/Cy7aLxSLUM
— Emilio Casalicchio (@e_casalicchio) January 31, 2020
Vigils were planned in far-flung locations from Canterbury to Glasgow, while the York and Selby for Europe group held a “European friendship supper.” A pro-EU march went past Downing Street in London, while at one event in Birmingham a fiddler was booked to play the EU anthem, also called “Ode to Joy.” Other mourners dotted around the nation put candles in windows, wore blue and flew EU flags in defiance.
A world away
The mood was more jubilant in Westminster.
Thousands of anti-EU revellers flocked to Parliament Square for a bash led by Brexit hero and now former MEP Nigel Farage. There were U.K. flags as far as the eye could see and the crowd roared “God Save the Queen” after the clock struck 11 p.m. A makeshift version of the Big Ben clocktower — dubbed “Little Ben” — was carted around with a chiming bell, after pro-Brexit MPs failed in their bid to have the real thing bong.
Farage, who came on stage to “The Final Countdown” by Swedish rock band Europe, bellowed to the crowd just minutes before the departure: “The war is over, we have won!” He added: “We are going to celebrate tonight because we know this is the single most important moment of the modern history of our great nation.”
— David Maddox (@DavidPBMaddox) January 31, 2020
Just a few hundred meters away in Downing Street, the party was much more refined, despite the gaudy Union Jack colors, countdown clock and bonging Big Ben image on the wall outside. Cabinet ministers, including International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and outgoing Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay, attended the exclusive reception hosted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
English sparkling wine flowed — as did a range of Britain-themed canapés. They included savory shortbread with Shropshire blue cheese, fillet of lamb on toast and Yorkshire pudding with horseradish.
In a pre-recorded address, released an hour before the departure time, Johnson accepted that the Brexit moment would be met with a range of different emotions. “For many people this is an astonishing moment of hope, a moment they thought would never come,” he said. “And there are many of course who feel a sense of anxiety and loss.”
Meanwhile, in his Chelsea mansion, millionaire venture capitalist Jon Moynihan, who chaired the Vote Leave finance committee, put on a lavish Brexit bash for some of the big names of the 2016 referendum campaign, as well as serving government figures.
Guests dined on a range of canapés, including sausage rolls with apple sauce, Welsh rabbit and mini quiche with bacon and cheddar. Those were followed by Rolos, tricolor macaroons, treacle tart and rhubarb Jammy Dodgers. Moynihan listed his five Brexit heroes, according to one attendee, putting former Prime Minister Theresa May at No. 2.
Across the country, pro-Brexit Tory MPs who have spent years or decades campaigning for Brexit were at select events, constituency get-togethers and having quiet meals in with friends to usher in their big moment. Old-school Maastricht rebels John Redwood and John Whittingdale were guests of honor at a sellout £90-a-head dinner organized by the pro-Brexit Bow Group.
Beaming Home Secretary and 2016 Vote Leave campaigner Priti Patel even received a Brexit-themed cake to mark the occasion.
Annabelle Dickson contributed reporting.