By Stefan Simanowitz
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 cup cakes.
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, according to organisers, more than five thousand dogs - and their owners - will march to Parliament to protest against Brexit, pausing on their way at Downing Street to deliver a PETition to the Prime Minister.
Whilst it may well live 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. Brexit is a complex and difficult topic. People reach for the remote when it comes up on the news and, in my experience, “the B word” is seldom used in polite conversation. Whilst people recognise it is a subject of huge national and personal importance, many struggle to speak out about it or have switched off from it altogether. This campaign attempts to reopen the conversation using dogs as a conduit to express their frustrations and hopes in a light-hearted way.
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.).
Rather than being dismissed as a hair-brained stunt, the campaign has attracted support from credible political figures. Speakers at Sunday’s rally in Parliament Square include MPs such as Stella Creasy and celebrities such as Downton Abbey star, Peter Egan.
Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, Alistair Campbell will be marching with his King Charles spaniel on Sunday. Unable to resist a pun of his own, Labour MP Owen Smith who will also be there, has said that the march will “unleash a bit of common sense to end this Brexit madness.”
The march has also attracted serious attention in the media with the story having been picked up by newswires and reported on political pages 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 such as Libby Purves in the Times, have criticized the campaign for not taking Brexit seriously, this entirely misses the point. Of course, a mass canine protest is unlikely to have any tangible impact on the progress of Britain’s exit from the European Union. But 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.
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, writer and human rights campaigner.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.