Along with somewhere between 80 and 100,000 other people of all ages, shapes, sizes, creeds, colours and origins, I spent the day in London yesterday, marching from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square. I felt a powerful urge to exercise my democratic right to call into question the course of action set in motion since last September’s Referendum (a ballot called by a since-discredited Prime Minister to placate right-wingers in his own party, which had instead seen the country duped into “cutting off its legs because its thumb hurts”, to quote a placard seen on the route).
The March itself took place in stunning Spring sunshine. I even got a bit of sunburn, which felt a strangely un-British thing to do on a March in March. As one of the many brilliant placards put it: “I’m British. I’m on a march. Things *must* be bad.” The atmosphere was a curious mix of genial camaraderie and well-behaved simmering anger, in an aural kaleidoscope of many of the languages spoken by UK-residing EU nationals, just as anxious as me at the uncertain future being traced out for them by the British Government.
A few little snippets from along the route which stand out in my memory: a growing collection of daffodils laid at the foot of the Cenotaph, symbol of what happens when nationalism and populism are allowed to run unchecked… “All You Need Is Love” playing at high volume from a flat overlooking Whitehall, chorused by marchers as we walked by… an outlandishly-clad Brexiteer on Park Lane, with a placard proudly proclaiming his claim that the Bible foretold Boris Johnson’s espousal of Brexit – loudly countered by a fellow marcher pointing out that there is “no blond hair in the Bible”, to guffaws from the passing crowds… looking up and down Park Lane from halfway down and seeing nothing but flag-waving fellow-marchers in either direction…
Once we arrived at Parliament Square, the mood was, once again, a rather curious combination: the heady feeling that we were inhabiting a page of history, combined with a sombre awareness that we stood mere metres away from the Carriage Gate and Westminster Bridge, scene of Wednesday’s apalling atrocity. Along with many others, I laid flowers at the Gate, and quietly thanked the police standing guard where PC Keith Palmer died in the line of duty. I am sure it is not my imagination that several of them seemed close to tears at the floral response to their colleague’s courageous actions.
Before the speeches began, an emotional minute’s silence was observed in tribute to PC Palmer, Aysha Frade, Kurt Cochran and Leslie Rhodes, as well as the other victims still in critical condition following Wednesday’s attack.
Opening the speeches was Seb Dance MEP – brought to many peoples’ attention over his spontaneous visual trolling of Nigel Farage in the European Parliament with a hand-written “He’s lying to you”. His impassioned words, ending “we will never be cowed – we are here to stand for our beliefs” in a double reference to last Wednesday as well as to Brexit, were followed by an even more powerful address from Tim Farron. I will admit to having lost whatever faith I had in the Liberal Democrats over their propping up of the Conservation Coalition, but Mr Farron spoke with cold fire, accusing Theresa May of making Farage look like a moderate in comparison, such is her apparent desire to drive Britain towards the precipice of a Hard Brexit rather than acknowledge the need to achieve a consensus, working not just for the 52% but also the 48%. His defiant tone pointedly underlined the fact that democracy did not come to a halt at 11pm on the 23rd June 2016, but is an ongoing process, in which those who voted Remain – and the voiceless thousands who were not able to vote or who were eligible but for whatever reason chose not to – must also be heard. Interestingly he also advocated solidarity and respect for those who had voted Leave, but have since realised that words written on the side of red buses carry less weight than they had been led to believe during the campaign.
QC Jo Maugham, whose tweets on the subject I have found to be well worth reading, spoke of his recent legal action against the Government, and of the fact that triggering Article 50 is part of a journey, from which we can turn back – not a destination in itself, with bridges burning in the background… He was also one of several speakers who pointed out that the Referendum had taken place in a pre-Trump era (doesn’t that seem like a long time ago!), before an unPresidented White House incumbent who wants to tear up trade rules, weaken Nato, challenge expert opinion on climate change, and advocates populist and isolationist policies on just about everything else. Are we really planning to cut ourselves adrift from the albeit imperfect security of a collaborative, solid EU family, in this unpredictable global context?
For me as an educator, perhaps the most “goose-bumpy” moments of the afternoon came when 4 young people were called to the stage, aged between 16 and 25, who focused attention on the fact that the “decision” set in motion last September had far-reaching implications for their generation in particular, as it will be them who have to face the consequences of whatever Brexit turns out to look like, for the longest time. The first of this quartet, a 16 year-old self-proclaimed “British, Muslism, Pakistani, European”, was arguably one of the most impressive speakers all afternoon, and would appear to have a promising career in prospect as a politician, unless he can do better for himself 😉
I left Parliament Square and walked across Westminster Bridge, feeling proud to have “put my money where my mouth is”, so-to-speak, and stood shoulder to shoulder with my fellow “Remainers”. The Bridge was festooned with more floral tributes to the dead and injured from last Wednesday… but was also a living witness to the sheer vibrant, cosmopolitan nature of London and the wider UK, a multicoloured people-stream of Londoners and tourists on their way to who-knows-where. Who knows where this country is headed? Certainly not Theresa May, David Davis and co. Wednesday 29th is an uncertain step into a rather worrying future, but after today I am less despairing than I may have been before.