For five years the top-hatted maverick Welshman Steve Bray has kept TV viewer’s amused at his antics and impressed by his dedication protesting outside England’s the Houses of Parliament. His ability to manoeuvre himself and his fellow campaigners behind a politician during interview is legendary, so much so, that the irked television companies clubbed together to build a raised plaform from which to interview liars and charlatans. Bray being brighter than television reporters, simply got bigger poles for his placards to raise them to the dias height.
In time, he bought a microphone and loudspeaker. The guardians of democracy in the Gothic House of Horrors passed a bill – as easily as they could dissolve Scotland’s parliament – to outlaw ‘noisy’ protests. They then sent in a squad of police to remove his equipment. Bray is a peaceable protestor; the police now made agents of fascism. Let it settle in: in Scotland it is unlawful to protest outside our parliament building. We have no room to scoff at Westminster.
Here is an abridged interview with a man who was Joe Shmo until he realised the Tory party is taking England’s democracy down the road to Mussolini, but in England no train runs on time.
THIS IS FASCISM
Interview by Emine Saner
Cars beep their horns as they turn off Parliament Square, tourists stop to chat and a protester with long white hair stands up on the railings at the end of a traffic island, as if on the prow of a pirate ship heading for Westminster. In the shade on one side of the street is Steve Bray, also known as Stop Brexit Man, slightly pink-faced under his top hat, tapping an unlit cigarette on its packet. He is planning to get back to vaping, he says, “but let’s get these stressful days out of the way first”. Every so often, a passerby will stop to shake his hand.
In the five years Bray has been protesting here, the past few weeks have been among the most memorable. At the end of June, police seized two of his amplifiers, and today there is a group of police officers watching him. The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act strengthens police powers to place conditions on protests – even one-person protests – to control noise levels; it also increases the “controlled” area around parliament. “I feel that was kind of aimed at me,” he says. “So last week, on the Tuesday, they warned me twice. I said: ‘Look, I’m a protester, we’re about sound and vision – I’m not altering how we protest. It’s up to you what you do.’ They gave me two warnings.”
In retaliation he put the Italian antifascist song Bella Ciao on, “and I went to the front [of the traffic island] with Gareth [he of the long white hair] to wave the flags. I could see them coming down to seize the stuff. I’m trying to wrap my leg around one amp; Gareth is holding on as well. We were doing everything we could to stop them taking the amps.” He says there were “at least 20 officers in the end”, and his microphone got broken. Is he worried about the prospect of prosecution? “Not in the slightest because what I’m doing is right, and what they’re doing is wrong.”
He describes the new powers as “fascist”: “People who feel so passionately that they have to protest, they’ve been put in that position by a government which is trying to shut them up; this is why I say it’s fascism. Our right to protest is fundamental and we’re all being attacked.” A few days after we speak, Bray posts a video on Twitter of a conversation with a police officer who says he has been ordered to stay with Bray all day. “This is not North Korea, this is not the Soviet Union: you are not following me around all day,” Bray tells him.
On the day we speak, in early July, Bray has another amp, “an old one, which is on its way out, but I’ve been using it. Today the police are ‘advising’ me, not warning me. So every time I play it, they come over and ‘advise’ me. They’ve changed tack. I’m not going to push it too far today.” That morning – in the background of a Good Morning Britain broadcast – he had played Bye Bye Boris, a parody song: “I’ve played it so much it’s driving me nuts.” As government ministers start resigning one after the other, people turn up to join the protest – about 40 over the course of the day, Bray says, in addition to the usual four or five core members.
Money has poured into his crowdfunder – more than £180,000 was donated in the time since his amps were seized, he reports; the total now stands at about £230,000 – which pays for him to keep going. There is, he says, “a hell of a lot of support and it’s growing week on week”.
When we speak again a couple of days later, he has made it on to TV again, this time playing the Benny Hill theme tune in the background of media broadcasts; a clip of the Conservative MP Chris Philp being interviewed on Sky News, the music playing as he spoke, went viral. The actor Hugh Grant had tweeted Bray that morning to request it. “I thought, OK,” says Bray, who stood on the ramp to the underground car park by College Green. “I know where to make a noise where nobody can do anything about it. I could see somebody on the corner waiting to go [on TV]; I didn’t realise it was Chris Philp. I thought it was a presenter, but I saw when he started and I just went for it.” He laughs.
Bray has become an enduring presence on TV, moving in to shot, or shouting, during broadcast interviews. “We’re about getting the message out. I would always rather be silent and just stand behind with a placard. But my view is if you can’t be seen, you’ve got to be heard. In shutting me out, they are actually making it a bit worse for themselves – someone silent in the background, or someone shouting or playing what I like to call trolling songs?” Politicians have sworn at him and mocked him – his tactic of following and filming them, while insistently shouting questions, is clearly annoying and at times uncomfortable in its aggression – and he isn’t exactly popular with TV presenters and camera crews (nor, I suspect, with a large number of viewers who would rather listen to a broadcast without Bray disrupting it). “I do feel sorry for them,” he says. “They say: ‘This is our job. We set up here; we’ve only got a couple of minutes.’ But I say: this is for our futures; this is for all of us.”
The pride and the passion
It can be difficult to understand the intensity of feeling that leads to someone giving their life over to a protest like this, standing in a square day after day, shouting and berating politicians. Bray likes to say he had never been on a protest in his life until the Brexit protest. In the run-up to the referendum on the UK’s EU membership, he was living in Port Talbot in Wales. “I know how much money the European Union had put into Port Talbot, one of the most deprived areas of the United Kingdom, and I was shocked at people there: that the majority voted to leave.” He believed, he says, the leave campaigns were lying. “What they promised, I knew there was no way they could deliver it. Port Talbot, a poor community, were being cheated out of a better life: being told they were going to get a better life when in fact they were going to be far worse off. I’m not an economist but I knew from the get-go it was all lies. Here we are, and it’s actually worse than I expected.”
He started posting online, then realised he needed “to move offline because I wasn’t achieving anything. It was just arguments and trolls. It took up so much time and it achieved very little.” He says he volunteered to drive a float from a carnival in Germany – featuring a huge model of Theresa May with a gun in her mouth – around London and Norwich, and joined other anti-Brexit protesters.
The numbers joining him grew, and they were there Monday to Friday for the first year; they also went on marches and to party conferences. Bray and the group moved to the traffic island at the beginning of last year to get more attention, even if the noise, cars and people can be draining. He has also been attacked and spat at by members of the far right, had “cuts and grazes” and his trousers ripped. “I’m trying to watch all the time. You’ve got agitators, the police. I’m watching for the MPs, the cars.” They are there a few times a week, especially on days with key votes. How much of it is still about Brexit? “Brexit was the start of something far bigger,” he says.
“Our political system is very flawed. This government has shown how bad a system run on trust is. There is no integrity, no honour, no decency and no morals.” He would like to rejoin the EU, he says, “but we need to change [the political system] first”.
Bray, 53, was born in Cardiff, but his father was in the RAF and he spent his childhood moving around, living on military bases in Germany for many years, which he thinks created a feeling of rootlessness. It also drew him to the idea of the EU, one of whose countries he vaguely planned to retire to. “I don’t belong anywhere, but everywhere, if that makes sense.” Bray worked as an electrical engineer, and also became a rare coin dealer, a passion he’d had since he was six.
He sold a few of his most valuable ones at the start of his protest, “which covered me into the first year, and then the crowdfunding was set up”. The money donated pays for a flat in London and “keeps me going at the moment”. For a couple of months in 2019, Bray’s team – known as Stand of Defiance European Movement, or Sodem – rented an Airbnb flat in a townhouse on the same street as the Conservative party headquarters, around the corner from parliament. “We would start at six in the morning and finish at midnight. They were hard weeks but they were worth their weight in gold.”
The protest has changed his life, given him a sense of purpose. “I’ve never met so many people in all my life. It’s given me an understanding of people, whatever their views. It’s brought me out of my shell. In a way, it’s a better life than the life I had, because I now have goals and things I want to achieve.” He is “a little bit more outgoing” than he was, he says. “I’m a bit more tolerant. I do try to put the shoe on the other foot and see it from the other angle, whereas before I never would.”
Fairness not fame
He never expected to be in the public eye, he says, and there are downsides: he is regularly attacked online by people claiming he uses a fake name, and making other allegations about him. “I never really wanted it, but now it’s happened I want to use that 15 minutes of fame to do some good.” In the 2019 general election, Bray stood as the Liberal Democrat candidate for Cynon Valley, a Labour safe seat he knew he couldn’t win (he got 949 votes). “I didn’t actually want to be an MP,” he says. “I don’t want to be in that den of iniquity – that’s not my cup of tea.”
“I’m happy to fight for people’s rights, but in a way I know best.” He can’t see a time that he won’t be protesting. “I think this has probably changed my life for ever. I think there’s so much wrong with this country. The mess will never be undone, but you have to start somewhere.”
NOTE: Emine Sayer is a feature writer for the Guardian and others newspapers. She apologises for her ‘unpronounceable name, somewhere between Eminem and Beyonce’.