Since he was 14 years old, British native Andy Coldwell made pilgrimages to London for protests. No longer a teenager, Coldwell keeps coming back, protesting everything from Brexit to the Iraq War and, most recently, President Trump’s London visit this week.
“I’m 55, but I’m still here,” Coldwell says.
Sporting a sticker declaring, “Bollocks to Brexit, Bollocks to Trump,” Coldwell joined thousands of protesters of all ages and nationalities in London, protesting Trump’s visit on Tuesday. Protesters gathered all over central London, including Trafalgar Square and near Westminster Abbey, holding signs like “Trump Not Welcome” and conversely, “Make America Great Again.”
While tensions ran high over a variety of social concerns tied to the president, including climate change, the Paris Agreement, reproductive rights, and refugees (complete with some toting around a giant Trump baby balloon), many protesters raised concerns over post-Brexit trade relations with the United States, as well as the impact of Brexit on the country.
Following a press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday, President Trump called the U.S.-U.K. alliance the “greatest alliance the world has ever known.”
The president urged May in a press conference to “stick around” to complete a “very, very substantial trade deal.” And Trump’s assertion of putting the British National Health Services (NHS) on the table for a post-Brexit trade deal is causing even more of a stir.
But for some protesters like Coldwell, the promise of strong trade between the countries post-Brexit isn’t ideal.
“[With] trade, you want to be with Europe,” Coldwell said, explaining he believed the European Union to be better for trade with Britain. “I don’t want to be a subservient of America, and especially with a president like Trump, who I’ve got nothing in common with at all.”
“We don’t want to be American,” Coldwell added.
Still, other protesters like Wolfgang, who declined to give his full name, contend that concerns over U.S.-U.K. trade may be hypocritical. He claims that many protesters’ qualms with some American imports, like chicken, are unfounded.
“I’ve heard people complaining about American chicken because it’s washed in chlorine—but why are you complaining, because we’ve got chlorinated water [in London]?” Wolfgang said.
But beyond American imports, many Britons took the protests as an opportunity to voice concerns over their own government—even rallying against Trump��s apparent support of Brexit.
After meeting with the president, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage tweeted that Trump “really believes in Brexit.” But many protesters had different sentiments.
In fact, according to recent polls by NatCen Social Research, support for Brexit has wavered slightly, with 52% favoring “leave” in 2016, compared to 53% favoring “stay” in 2019 polls.
And it seems Londoners on Tuesday had equally mixed feelings.
“The issue with the referendum is that it wasn’t clear what Brexit was supposed to be,” Casandra, a protester who declined to give her full name, said. “People have a lot of thoughts about local policies and they’ve conflated that with Brexit and the EU.”
Casandra, who moved to London 10 years ago to attend university on a visa, claims the British government doesn’t seem to be doing enough to help the economy—especially in areas like wages.
“You have a lot of people working who are still living in poverty,” she said. “There’s a lot of inequality.”
Some suggested that Brexit may help give local resident workers more jobs, drawing on Trump’s crackdown on undocumented workers back in the states.
While concerns have arisen over how Brexit might impact businesses, some Londoners were far more bullish about the decision’s effects.
Wolfgang claimed that, through conversations he’s had with business owners, businesses may actually reap more direct profits from foreign trade “because there’s no competition from the EU, there’s no tariff.”
Although the actual increases or decreases for tariffs are still uncertain, some data has been provided in the event of a no-deal Brexit—which could see lower percentages, or even no tariffs at all on certain products.
But business aside, others directly likened the country’s push for Brexit to a Trump-like political agenda.
“The Tories are the British equivalent to Trump,” Melissa Merlan, a protester, told the New York Times on Tuesday. “If we allow them to lead us into Brexit without a deal, then the U.K. is going to unravel further and start to look a lot like Trump’s America.”
Whether or not Brexit could turn Britain into “Trump’s America” or not, many protesters also promoted a pro-Brexit stance—and for Wolfgang, this meant respecting the power of a vote, regardless of one’s social or financial standing.
“On [voting] day you’re as powerful as Jeff Bezos, as Zuckerberg,” Wolfgang said. “Everyone’s vote has to be respected.”
But whether protesting reproductive rights or Brexit, many protesters were dismayed by the apparent lackluster turnout.
Crowds were not as large as expected (nor as large as those last July, which drew crowds of more than 250,000). And, for some, the overall message of the protest was somewhat lost.
“But what’s next? There was no call to action,” one protester added.
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