Back in the Summer of 2016, on June 15th, a naval engagement took place on the Thames. Boats left Ramsgate at 3am and Southend at 6am, heading towards Tower Bridge. Other vessels came from Brixham, Berwick, and Faversham, even some from Scotland. The fleet was prevented passing the Thames Barrier by the Harbour Master, who only allowed through four large boats and eight smaller ones, leaving about twenty behind. By the afternoon the fleet had reached central London, led by Edwardian, a “luxurious river cruiser”, where they were ambushed.
The admiral of the fishing fleet was Nigel Farage, leading boats assembled by Fishing for Leave. Leading the counter-demonstrators on a ‘party boat’ was Bob Geldof. His boat had a large sound system and kept playing a thirty second snippet of classic song ‘The In Crowd’. Again and again. Among the other vessels in this group were ones captained by Charlotte Church and Rachel Johnson, sister to Leave politician Boris.
On his flagship, Farage’s discussions with journalists were drowned out by Geldof, who attacked the UKIP politician’s record, accusing him of being a fraud. He pointed out that when Farage was on the European Parliament Fishing Committee, he attended one out of 43 meetings.
Farage was unimpressed with Geldof’s response to the fishermen. “It’s just insulting to these people. Some of these lads have come from the north of Scotland, communities… where we have seen tens of thousands of jobs lost and a way of life destroyed, and they come here to make their protest and be heard, and they get a multimillionaire laughing at them.”
And, to be fair, Geldof was not the best placed person to be leading the Remain fleet, given his interesting and complicated tax affairs . And raising two fingers at the fishermen and telling them to ‘fuck off’ was not a good look. A group of activists left Geldof’s boat because of this, with one saying “these fishermen were working-class people with genuine issues and we didn’t think they should be erased by Bob Geldof”
The police did their best to prevent an actual battle. Water cannons were sprayed by the fishermen at their opposition. And Geldof’s boat came under direct attack. In the Guardian’s account of the battle, they wrote “Richard Eves, a fisherman from Leigh-on-Sea, decided to launch a boarding raid on Geldof’s boat using his rusty trawler Wayward Lad… ‘We threatened to ram them first and then they let us on,’ he said afterwards. ‘They shit themselves. I was angry.’”
The Vice magazine article on this is a work of genius, and includes reports of “a spy boat, a secret In boat in with the Out flotilla, which will do a heel-turn somewhere around the Thames Barrier and unfurl “In” banners in amongst the Out fisherman”
The engagement is most remarkable for how shambolic it was. The sight of two rival groups shouting at one another, while not really engaging was representative of the whole Brexit campaign. Arron Bank was on the Edwardian and described the event as “Traflagar meets wacky races”. According to his book, Bad Boys of Brexit, he bankrolled the Leave Fleet to the cost of 10,000 a boat, or 250,000 for a fleet of 70.
A map even appeared on social media, showing the battle:
One of the jokes abut the post-referendum period is that a lot of people have suddenly become experts on customs unions. These were barely discussed in the run up to the referendum. No, we had more important things to be talking about.
Who needs fake news when the real news is so poor?