On Thursday 7th July 2016, it has been reported that over a thousand residents of Norwich and its surrounding areas gathered to listen to a range of eight pro-EU speakers in front of City Hall.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing was that the event, entitled Norwich Stays, had been organised by two young people, Emily Cutler and Tom Johnston, who had expected a “couple of hundred” attendees at most when they first decided on the need for a rally.
Amidst all of the buzzing online discussion I wanted to describe my own experience of attending the event. Perched on the raised concrete to the side of City Hall’s famous steps, I had a good view of the assembled crowd, many of whom were resplendent with painted faces, flags and placards.
What united us was no more complicated or nuanced than a common love of Europe, be it for cultural, practical or political reasons.
Luckily in our society, with or without the EU, not a single one of the Norwich Stays attendees has any obligation whatsoever to justify why they chose to turn out. However I would like to explain my reasoning, and in doing so address some of the absurd criticisms levelled at those who organised and attended the event.
After coverage on BBC local radio and TV news and local station Mustard TV, alongside word-spreading on social media and by word of mouth, one of the final factors in making sure I turned out was some of the hilarious comments on the Eastern Daily Press article before the event. Reading some of the inevitable negative reactions to Norwich Stays on social media since has entrenched my pride at having attended. The tender age of the organisers and some attendees sparked a flurry of patronising replies. Some comments insulted the intelligence of the same young people blamed for political apathy and devalued the young vote while others came close to criticising the basic freedoms of speech and protest, which are more important than even this referendum.
As a matter of fact, a vast range of different ages were present. It was hardly an ill-conceived collective of wet-behind-the-ears students eager to vent their anger at the latest political fad. This protest was well thought out, and backed by real conviction and good representation from all age groups with no evident gender skew.
It is also apparent, as speaker James Wright touched on, that everyone attended the rally with different hopes and expectations for the future. For some, another referendum is the aim. Others disagree vehemently with this and instead want to work out how to preserve cultural unity within the EU even if Britain leaves. Some wanted to speak up for young people, particularly the 16 and 17 year olds still criminally frozen out and denied their say under our archaic voting system. And some simply turned out to show solidarity with the European community and present Norwich as an inclusive, diverse, tolerant city as we natives, born and raised in our fine city, stood shoulder to shoulder with our friends and neighbours from migrant communities who we consider every bit as much Norwich citizens as ourselves.
To assume, as some online commentators did, that all who attended are clueless children who now disagree with democracy is as dangerous and incorrect as the widely discredited arguments that ‘leave’ voters are all racist pensioners.
The speakers each made a string of salient points to encourage further discussion among attendees regarding the next steps to take. In summary, they were:
Alan Waters, Labour Party City Councillor for Crome ward and Leader of Norwich City Council. The first speaker after a choir performance and introductory remarks from the event’s organisers, Waters highlighted that now “this is our moment to shape the future of this city” and implored those in attendance to draw on their characteristics of “tolerance…unity, openness” in the future.
Emily Cutler, co-organiser of the event, a current Economics student at the University of East Anglia. Cutler admitted she was “scared” for her future, but remarked that she was “really touched” that so many people had turned out.
James Wright, Liberal Democrat City Councillor for Eaton ward and Norwich’s Deputy Lord Mayor. Wright spoke of his pride that Norwich voted to remain, and called Europe “perhaps the best peace project that we’ve ever had in our history”. He added: “we need to come together” to maintain the protections of environmental issues and workers’ rights currently legislated for by the EU. Wright criticised the leave campaign, saying: “they had no plan, they had rhetoric” and said the leaders of the campaign had left “someone else to pick up the pieces”. Wright was heckled by a few in the crowd when he said that the decision of the electorate must be respected, but he argued that the “European family” must be protected, and that all EU migrants in the UK must be allowed to remain.
“We want to remain as part of the European Union… had it gone the other way, we saw on the night as the [referendum] results were coming in, when Farage felt that perhaps the leave campaign were losing, he was beginning to back-pedal, calling for another referendum already, so don’t have it from people on the other side of the argument that we simply have sour grapes. We are people who believe in something, and we want to continue campaigning for that something.” James Wright
Dr Alexandria Innes, lecturer on International Relations at the University of East Anglia criticised the “misinformation” given during the referendum campaign, but pointed out that there was “nothing binding on migration”. Dr Innes explored the “genuine fear” behind some Brexit votes, and how migration was used as a “scapegoat” for problems as opposed to “neoliberal economics”, engendering a warm response.
David Raby, Green Party City Councillor for Town Close ward and member of the Another Europe is Possible group spoke after a short break. Raby discussed how an exchange to Norwich’s twin city Rouen as a fourteen-year-old sparked his love for European culture and explained how this sits perfectly alongside his strong Norfolk heritage. He called the referendum result a “personal tragedy” and agreed with James Wright that the environment and workers’ rights are still of primary importance. Raby branded the leave campaign’s leaders “irresponsible and pernicious”, and called for an “alliance of progressive parties” to take the UK forward.
Katy Jon Went (above), a local writer and activist pointed out that it is wrong to “tarnish [all ‘leave’ voters] with the same brush”, and argued that personal attacks marred the referendum and brought “disrepute to [both] campaigns”. Went strongly condemned the rise in hate crimes since the referendum result and argued that although the future was more “insecure” now, this is “not the end” for the debate. Recent EU agreements concerned with “promoting LGBTI rights across Europe” were praised by Went, who argued that there have been “laws to do with human rights that needed imposing on us.”
“Let me say from the outset that I believe in hope not hate. Unity and not division… I’m also against tarnishing all leavers with the same brush. Whilst the majority of racists, it has been said, voted leave, the majority of leavers are not racists. Nor are they all elderly. Nor are they all uneducated. Nor are they all unemployed. Nor of a different class to some who may be gathered here. Descending into generalisations and personal attacks without factual qualification is part of the very issue that brought such disrepute to campaigns of both leave and remain.” Katy Jon Went
Jon Clemo (below), Chief Executive of the charity Community Action Norfolk and a member of Britain Stronger In Europe described his experiences during the campaign, with the support of all ages and ethnicities. Clemo criticised the “lie” of the Leave campaign but pointed out that remainers failed to establish an “equally compelling narrative”. Clemo also highlighted the power of unity, explaining that we need to “pressure and push forward together” in “what is our global generation; but also ensure no-one is left behind”.
Claudina Richards, a senior lecturer in Law at the University of East Anglia who also works with the European Erasmus scheme for the funding of study abroad, was the last of the guest speakers before Cutler and Johnston summed up. Richards explained how she feels the need to apologise to European nationals she meets, and highlighted the “fear, uncertainty and stress” caused, calling Europe “part of my identity… part of our identity”.
Overall, the event filled me with pride and hope for the future. The UK electorate’s national vote to leave the European Union will of course inform the next political steps, at least until the next General Election (whenever that may be). With the new Prime Minister poised to be either Andrea Leadsom or Theresa May, the UK government will begin preparations to formally exit the Union. The government’s lukewarm response to the petition calling for a second referendum proved, if proof was needed, that there will be no immediate referendum re-run, and in my opinion this is a good thing. A re-run any time soon would turn the remain campaign into cannon fodder for the anti democracy complaints currently being put across by some Brexiteers, and the swing needed to remain (which would need to be considerably more than 52-48 in the other direction to prevent calls for an even more farcical third referendum) is by no means guaranteed.
However, whatever happens politically in the next few years and beyond, one thing was made abundantly clear on Thursday: culturally, nothing will prevent large numbers of Norwich citizens from feeling European, and extending respect, compassion and a warm welcome to other cultures.
Since the rally, Norwich has united in its condemnation of the widely publicised attack on a Romanian convenience store. The inference is that this could be a hate crime, in the same vein as those condemned by Katy Jon Went which are on the rise across the UK. Dr Innes summed things up well, stating that a leave vote was not, for the vastly overwhelming majority, a result of racist attitudes, but of a real belief that Britain would be better off out of the EU. Norwich Stays showed that the true feelings around our city are of love, acceptance and warmth regardless of nationality, origin or views on Britain’s membership of the EU.
To echo the sentiments of Went, this is not the end, far from it. This is only the very start. With a new Facebook group founded with the intention of carrying on the momentum from Thursday and planning more peaceful demonstrations, alongside the great deal of publicity coming from the event, Norwich is ready to continue its tolerant stance. Norwich Stays, its organisers and supporters are not anti-democracy for a variety of reasons too lengthy to explore now. However Thursday proved what we are: pro-cooperation, pro-unity and anti-hate.
View more of my photos below: