Opinionista Stefan Simanowitz 8 October 2018

Wooferendum a sign of just how barking mad Brexit is

In 2015, the New York Times ran an article on how The Great British Bake Off Is the Key to Understanding Today’s Britain. The piece reflected on how, in the space of less than a century, Britain had gone from “the largest, most effective and arguably the most brutal empire the world had ever seen” to a nation obsessed with nostalgia and cupcakes.

Three years on, buffeted by the Brexit storm, another phenomenon has emerged that perhaps holds a key to understanding the current psyche of the inhabitants of this peculiar island nation: the Wooferendum campaign.

On Sunday, an estimated two thousand dogs – and their owners – marched to Parliament to protest against Brexit, pausing on their way at Downing Street to deliver a PETition to the Prime Minister. London’s streets were filled with the sound of barking and samba bands as well as the laughter of crowds watching as dogs cocked their legs against “pee stations” featuring photos of the country’s most reviled Brexiteers.

Whilst the protest may have lived up to its billing as “the biggest political march by dogs in history” the reason for this lies not in its size but in the fact that there has never been a political march by dogs before. Ever.

Whilst clearly an off-the-wall idea, the Wooferendum campaign is perhaps a very British response to the increasingly surreal situation this country of pet-lovers find themselves in.

Brexit – defined by some as “the undefined being negotiated by the unprepared in order to get the unspecified for the uninformed” – has thrown many of the country’s most stable institutions into turmoil.

The impact on businesses and the economy are already being keenly felt. There are credible reports of government plans to stockpile food and medicines and to implement measures to combat civil unrest. Meanwhile, levels of political infighting and political opportunism have scraped new lows.

Against this backdrop, the Wooferendum offers a gentler approach to a debate that has become increasing rabid.

The campaign – a perfect fit for social media – has seen thousands of people posting photographs and videos of their dogs alongside “Stop Brexit” signs and has sprouted more puns than you could shake a stick at (“Brexit is barking”, “Put Brexit in the doghouse”, “Dogs won’t roll over and they won’t be muzzled” etc.).

A heart-warming one-minute video has predictably gone viral with more than half-a-million views in the space of a few weeks.

Rather than being dismissed as hair-brained stunt, the campaign has attracted support from credible political figures. Speakers at Sunday’s rally in Parliament Square included MP’s such as Labour’s Stella Creasy and the LibDem Tom Break as well as celebrities such as Downton Abbey star, Peter Egan.

Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, Alistair Campbell who was marching with his King Charles spaniel told the crowd in Parliament Square: “This is a very British sort of thing. We have to do everything we can to show the politicians that the country is not uniting around Brexit.”

The march also attracted and serious attention in the media with the story making the front page of today’s Times and is getting widespread coverage across Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Last month, one commentator in the London Evening Standard noted that dogs have an intuitive nose for danger. “They can detect cancers or seizures, be trained to lead the blind, remind their owners to take medication and interrupt behaviours like self-harm. So perhaps we should let Brexit go to the dogs, after all.”

Whilst some commentators have criticized the campaign for being not taking Brexit seriously, Wooferendum organiser, Daniel Elkan, says that this entirely misses the point. “Of course dogs marching against Brexit is barking mad, but is it any more crazy than the Brexit chaos we find ourselves in?” he asks. “Brexit is a tough topic, and people struggle to engage or to speak out about it. This campaign is about using dogs as a conduit to enable people to express their frustrations and their hopes in an engaging and amusing way.”

While this weekend’s mass canine protest is unlikely to have any tangible impact on the progress of Britain’s exit from the European Union, it has clearly captured the imagination. Combining a very British form of irreverently anti-establishment humour with a very British love of dogs, this campaign has found a new way to tell their political leaders that they think that they are barking up the wrong tree.DM

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and human rights campaigner.

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