Europe Politics

'It's not going to be the end of us': London's remain voters confront Brexit reality

Key Points
  • It's been more than three years since a slim majority of Brits — almost 52% — voted to leave the EU.
  • Friday January 31 is "Brexit Day" as the U.K. finally leaves the EU.
  • For the 48.1% that voted to stay in the EU, there are mixed feelings toward leaving the bloc.
When Remainers protested against Brexit: Thousands of protesters gather in London on September 09, 2017 in London, England.
Barcroft Media

It's been more than three years since a slim majority of Brits — 51.9% — voted to leave the EU.

For those that wanted it, Friday 31 January — dubbed "Brexit Day" as the U.K. finally leaves the EU — will be a day of celebration.

For the 48.1% that voted to stay in the EU, however, leaving the bloc could be a day of acute loss, regret and sadness.

CNBC spoke to Londoners, a city that voted overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the EU, about how they feel about "Brexit Day" and impending life outside of the European Union.

"I think it's the worst thing that will ever happen to this country. I think it's absolutely disastrous," Gary, a remain voter from London, told CNBC Tuesday. Asked how he'll feel Friday when Brexit actually happens, he said "I'll feel really, really sad."

"I think we'll live to regret it in a few years' time. They're (the EU is) our closest neighbors so we want to get closer to them, not further away from them, it's just common sense," he added.

Pro-Brexit and pro-Remain protests have dominated Westminster since 2016.
Mike Kemp

Like most Brits who voted, Gary has experienced the division the referendum caused, with many families split over the arguments in favor of remaining or leaving.

"My mum voted to exit (the EU), as did a lot of the older generation, and it's caused a massive rift for all of us. I've given up talking about it now and we've been talking about it for three years and both sides are adamant that their view is right."

'Life's still going to go on'

Since the referendum in June 2016, the country has seen political turmoil and division not witnessed in recent years, as lawmakers have grappled with the unwieldy beast that is Brexit.

There have been false starts — March 29, 2019 was meant to be the original Brexit day — and hopes and fears (in both the remain and leave camps) that Brexit might not happen.

It has also caused political casualties along the way, including former Prime Minister Theresa May who, presiding over a minority government, could not get a majority of lawmakers in Parliament to approve her Brexit deal, leading to her eventual resignation and Boris Johnson taking office.

Johnson faced the same resistance in Parliament to his revamped Brexit deal and a stalemate set in last summer leading to an eventual snap election in December.

By that point, the British public were largely fed up with Parliament's shenanigans and Johnson's message to "get Brexit done" chimed with many voters, even among those who had traditionally never voted for the Conservative Party.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (C) speaks to activists and supporters on December 8, 2019.
WPA Pool

Remain voter Josh told CNBC that "the last election might have been our last stand" and there is little chance of a Brexit reversal now, particularly as the U.K. leaves the EU now and embarks on trade talks with the bloc in a bid to strike a deal before the end of 2020.

"There are not many options left. I don't think many people's feelings have changed but I don't think there are any avenues for how we could actually stop it now."

Brexit was "a bad thing but at the same time, it's not going to be the end of us," Josh added.

"Life's still going to go on, we're still going to be here living and breathing. There will be an adjustment period. The actual outcome might be reduced opportunities in the future, it's not like we're going to get wiped out. It's just one of those things really. I don't think it's a disaster, I think it's a setback."

'Keep calm and carry on'

Up until the election on December 12, there was still some hope among opposition parties that wanted to remain in the EU that a second referendum, or a "People's Vote," could be held to decide on the Brexit deal.

But the election resulted in such a political thumping of the main opposition party Labour, and a lackluster result for the consistently anti-Brexit party, the Liberal Democrats, that the wind seemed to be taken out of the sails of remainer lawmakers.

The 80-seat Conservative majority in Parliament empowered Johnson to push his Brexit bill (or Withdrawal Agreement) through the House of Commons in January with little resistance and it passed through the upper chamber of Parliament, the House of Lords, last week too.

While church bells might ring in staunchly "Leave" parts of the country on Friday (though it was decided that Big Ben in London, under renovation, would be too expensive to "bong for Brexit"), it is likely to be greeted with a stony silence in areas that voted to remain.

Brexiters outside the British parliament in Westminster, on 31st October 2019, in London.
Richard Baker

Remain voter Aarti described the feeling to CNBC as a "keep calm and carry on" moment, reflecting a British attitude seen during World War II. The motto was printed on posters in 1939 by the British government to motivate and raise the morale of the British public as major cities were threatened and targeted with mass air attacks by the Nazis.

The phrase, which has spawned a thousand variants, is still popular today and reflects a general "let's get on with it" attitude in British culture.

"I voted to remain," Aarti told CNBC Tuesday while standing in a line at a weekly food market bustling with office workers on their lunch break.

"But I think next Tuesday we'll still be here, standing here, in the same queue, to buy the same food. I think it's a 'keep calm and carry on' situation, there's not much you can realistically do. There is going to be a temporary dip I think in the economy whilst stuff sorts itself out," she said.

Many remain (and leave) voters are just plain fed up of Brexit after more than three years of talking and hand-wringing over it. Remain voter David told CNBC that his viewpoint was that "the longer we faff around over it, it's going to make it worse either way."

"It's a done deal, so we've got to make the most of it. I think a lot of people still think it's a bad idea but the decision has been made," he said. Other remainers, like Gary, are thinking ahead.

"I think now we've got to the point where we're all exhausted and worn down," he said, adding: "I personally want to go and live in Spain in future."

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