The rival campaigns for Britain to leave or remain in the European Union took to the sea on Wednesday, in an extraordinary naval skirmish between right-wing politicians, angry fishermen and an 80s pop star.
A flotilla of vessels, from gigantic mackerel trawlers to tiny fishing boats, sailed up the River Thames expressing grievances over perceived unfair European fishing policies that they claim have destroyed their livelihoods.
Standing atop a windy Westminster Bridge in London overlooking the fleet, James White, 33, a fisherman from the North Sea coast town of Felixstowe, spoke about why they support Britain’s exit — or “Brexit” — from the EU.
“We are an island but we import fish! We want our fishing rights back,” White said. “We are not fairly treated with the quotas we are given and what we are allowed to catch compared to other EU countries. We are throwing back dead fish which is perfectly adequate but we’re not allowed to keep it. If we can start controlling our own regional fisheries, we can know what we can target.”
Leading Brexiteer Nigel Farage, head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, joined the armada. But his arrival was overshadowed by Irish rock icon Bob Geldof, and a host of other Remain campaigners, who had piloted his own vessel dangerously close.
As Farage began to address assembled reporters, his remarks were drowned out by Geldof’s deafening sound system that blasted out Dobie Gray’s soul hit “The In Crowd.”
On June 23, the British public will vote in a referendum on their membership in the 28-nation bloc. A poll released Monday by research firm YouGov had the Leave campaign lurching into a 7-point lead.
As the nautical escapade moved toward the Houses of Parliament, Geldof brandished a PA and launched a tirade at the UKIP leader, accusing him of being a “fraud” and barely attending any fisheries committees as member of European Parliament.
“Here are the facts about fishing. Britain makes more money than any other country in Europe from fishing. Two: Britain has the second largest quota for fishing in Europe after Denmark. Three: Britain has the third largest landings. Fourth: You are no fisherman’s friend.”
Farage branded the protest “disgusting,” telling reporters on board: “These are communities that have been devastated. These are communities that no one has listened to for years. To see multimillionaires frankly mocking them is a pretty shameful sight.”
A recent study by Scotland’s University of Aberdeen suggested that as many as 92 percent of the British fishing trade will be voting to leave the EU.
Fisherman Robert Butters, 34, is worried that he is the last in a generation to take to the seas.
“Nobody is coming into the industry any more, there won’t be an industry in 30 years’ time,” Butters said. “If I had any kids, I wouldn’t want to pass the business down to them, they would get below minimum wage. If the EU’s not working now, there’s no harm in getting out and trying.”
As the clouds began to darken, a purple double-decker bus commandeered by the independence party rolled past playing the theme from “The Great Escape.”
River police tried to separate a Brexit dinghy flying a pirate flag from boarding Geldof’s vessel, to the strains of Van Morrison's version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go.”
Butters, the fisherman, gazed across the water at the melee.
“We were the greatest nation in the world once upon a time," he said. "Now look at us.”