The co-founder of Our Future Our Choice left her degree to fight for a second referendumby Peter Chappell / March 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
“I cried,” concedes Lara Spirit. It was the day of the People’s March in central London, and she was running across St James’s Park. And then someone told her an estimated 700,000 people had turned out to support a second Brexit referendum. “I literally just burst out crying,” she tells me over lunch at Brunswick House, Vauxhall. Spirit is a co-founder of the Our Future, Our Choice (OFOC) youth movement for a People’s Vote, along with Will Dry and Femi Oluwole, and we meet just as the movement is again gaining momentum with the 29th March drawing near.
The march in October last year was one of the largest in decades, and Spirit remembers it as a high point in the campaign. OFOC was founded with Lara and Will sleeping on the floors of friend’s flats in London, and has now grown to a national campaign. At 21 years old, Spirit decided to leave her Cambridge politics degree behind, having requested leave from her College for “exceptional circumstances.” Those exceptional circumstances have seen her appear regularly as a representative for the over 70 per cent of young people who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum.
Spirit grew up in Chichester in west Sussex, her father a natural Conservative voter and her mother voting Green. “My parents argued about various different things all the time,” which led her to position her politics “somewhere in the middle.” Her parents “weren’t hugely on board” when she told them her plans to temporarilygive up her place at Cambridge: “it was hard at the beginning,” she admits.
Opinions on Brexit have split many families down the middle, and Spirit’s family are little different. “My grandmother and I have lots of arguments about it,” she says. “We come at the world from, like, a different way.” What does her grandmother make of her granddaughter campaigning to stop something she voted for? “She thinks that the levels of immigration are too high,” Spirit says, describingher grandmother’s worldview as “nostalgic, definitely.” She stops herself there—she doesn’t “want to say anything which sounds disrespectful.”
When Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016, everything changed for Spirit. “Everyone in Cambridge who was Remain-voting in the referendum did far too little” to win support for the cause, she says. Appalled by the result, she got into contact with an old private school friend Will Dry, who had voted for Leave but was now having doubts. Dry had met Oluwole on Twitter already, and the three started pitching articles. It was initially the foreign press who were interested, but opinion pieces and a profile in the Guardian soon followed.
“Do you have any soup?”, she asks the waitress, having been distracted with talking about the EU and not reading the menu. They don’t have any soup. She asks for more time to order a lunch “that actually makes sense” for her, smiling apologetically.
Spirit has the kind of cultivated manners British parents pay tuition fees for. She’s prone to exaggerating loveliness in people’s characters, describing a shared acquaintance as an “exceptional, special person,” despite only having made small talk with him once at a 21st birthday party over two years ago.
But these high opinions aren’t reserved for everyone. Her local MP, Conservative Gillian Keegan, comes in for particular criticism—“I have found her to be very patronising,” Spirit says. “That’s fine, you can use that,” she adds, and laughs with exasperation.
Her charm and commitment have come across especially well in live interviews, where she has gone head to head with political bruisers such as Andrew Neil and Adam Boulton. “The first time I did Sky—I remember this so clearly. I found out I was doing it on Friday, it [the debate] was on Monday, I spent the whole weekend being so unbelievably anxious and stressed. And I was like this can never go well… My brain was not working,” she says as thanks the waitress politely for a napkin.
After another panellist asked her about the risk of becoming trapped in a “United States of Europe” she felt “completely thrown.” “The Expressran an article on ‘Young Remainer Slammed on United States of Europe,’ or whatever,” she recalls, her right hand flicking air-quotes. “I remember thinking, oh my god, this is so serious. I’ve got something really wrong, this is awful, I’m never going to be seen as credible,” she says. “But mean people will write mean things about you, and that’s fine”—Spirit quickly learnt the costs of being in the centre of the Brexit debate, the most polarising political debate in memory.
Despite welcoming media attention to promote her cause, Spirit describes how one of her biggest frustrations over the past year of campaigning has been the “patronising” attitude taken to youth campaigners, their arguments made out to be “vacuous” and “idealistic” by journalists, and not given the same license as the older generation’s opinions.
Spirit says she is campaigning for the views of people who matter most in the debate. While she can deal with Boultons and Neils, it is the interrogation by 200 young people in a school hall she most fears. “You’ll often get asked incredibly focused questions which other people would skim over,” she says. Spirit “craves just sitting down and doing my degree,” even though all her friends have graduated, and the thought of Brexit debate stopping anytime soon is an unlikely prospect.