Master practitioners of pomp and ceremony, Brits knows how to mark a national moment. However the electricity on Friday seemed somehow out of kilter with the magnitude of the milestone and the three-and-a-half high voltage years that preceded it.
A self-proclaimed festival of democracy in central London was a massive gathering and exceeded expectations. But it was tailored for the diehards – not the vast majority of the 15.18 million people like Blake who resolutely but quietly voted to split from the EU. And it was not certainly not an occasion for the 13.26 million who wanted to stay.
Some Brexit supporters trampled a European Union flag into the mud as the clock ticked closer to 11pm. Others sang Rule, Britannia!, chanted “bye, bye EU”, banged drums and gazed at lightshows projected onto Whitehall’s stately public buildings.
“This is so exciting. We have wanted this for so long and now it is finally happening. It means a lot to me,” Kate Parsons said. “Brexit supporters aren’t evil people. We just wanted something different.”
Radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer said Leave supporters had been mocked and vilified: “Gathering here isn’t gloating, it isn’t rubbing people’s noses in it. We shouldn’t have to hide away in a dark corner as if Brexit is something to apologise for or be embarrassed about.”
Brexit agitator Nigel Farage told the crowd the split was “the single most important moment in the modern history of our great nation”.
“We faced an establishment that never even wanted to listen to us, that never wanted that referendum to take place; an establishment that has tried for three-and-a-half years to frustrate the will of the greatest democratic mandate ever seen in this country.”
Inside Number 10, Boris Johnson held a party where guests were served English sparkling wine, fillet of lamb on toast, Yorkshire pudding and Shropshire blue cheese. But even the pro-Brexit Prime Minister’s tone was muted.
“For many people this is an astonishing moment of hope, a moment they thought would never come,” he said in a televised address an hour before the EU divorce became official at 11pm.
“And there are many of course who feel a sense of anxiety and loss. And then of course there is a third group – perhaps the biggest – who had started to worry that the whole political wrangle would never come to an end.”
The EU had “evolved over 50 years in a direction that no longer suits this country”, Johnson said. Hours earlier, the British flag was removed from its position outside the European Parliament in Brussels and replaced with a EU one.
Over in France, President Emmanuel Macron attacked the “lies, exaggerations and simplifications” of the 2016 referendum but warned the first ever departure of a country from the EU was a development that had wider ramifications.
“It is a historic alarm signal that must be heard in each of our countries,” he said.
Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, George Brandis, said Britain’s departure allowed it to “turn over a new page and write the next chapter in its long and illustrious history”.
Farage was less diplomatic: “The war is over. We have won.”
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.