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CHANGING OF THE VANGUARD



"Here I was reminded of post-war Labour Government Minister Douglas Jay's oft-repeated patrician mantra: "The man in Whitehall knows best". Right now it was the men in the Ministry of Defence on Whitehall who had assumed his arrogant mantle on this particular occasion. As the march picked up pace and the sun finally shone in our faces, I could not help but feel defiant. At this rate, we would be in Hyde Park in time to hear the speeches I thought."

Andrew Stevens reports on London's February 15 Peace Protests

COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The organisers of the march estimated it at two million. The police made a more conservative estimate of around 750 000. Our liberal democratic state broadcaster, the BBC, true to on the fence form, reported both figures but didn't specify which one was most likely. Whichever figure was closer to the mark, the one thing we can agree around is that central London has never seen so many people unified in political and moral opposition to an unjust war against the people of Iraq.

The numbers are significant though, and always have been, the Million Man March in Washington DC of 1995 raised that particular bar even higher. Under the unelected ancien regime of the 18th and 19th centuries, such protests were said to be "only of interest to women and boys" if the authorities wished to dismiss their relevance. And under the elected ancient regime of today, it would be only too easy to pass off such protests as being the sole concern of the Heinz 57 varieties of Trotskyite sects that act as the usual suspects for organising and attending political protest activity in this country. With 1m people on the streets of London, most of whom if the media are to be believed, possessing no discernable political affiliation or history of political activism, it is somewhat harder to dismiss its relevance and mandate. However, the police motives for lowering the headcount were equally as sinister - to ensure the Countryside Alliance's recent civilised outings on the streets of London (that urban hub of metropolitan attitudes and radicalism they openly profess to hate) remained pre-eminent in terms of displaying levels of public support for their cause.

The presence of Bolshy elements was not altogether absent -- if the banners were anything to go by then the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Workers Power, the Indian Workers Association and, of course, the Socialist Workers Party were all in attendance. What was surprising was the presence of banners and placards from the kinds of 'mainstream' political parties that are usually otherwise preoccupied when these events take place -- the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists) and the Green Party. As I sat in the café of the National Film Theatre prior to the start of the march, nursing a coffee, I couldn't help but to smirk at the sight of Class War activists trying to sell papers and recruit otherwise indifferent young people, for most of whom attending a march of this nature was of far more significant gravity than voting. The presence of large numbers of young people and families was one of the surprises of the day -- veterans of peace marches are more used to seeing the same old faces of middle class lefties and anarcho-crusty elements at such events.

Were it not for the head of steam built up in the media in the weeks before the march, the organisers would probably have held some reservations about the numbers if the weather was anything to go by -- a chilly February Saturday with a nip in the air. Most London protests have been spontaneous affairs -- the Lollard revolt of 1414, the riots of 'Evil May Day' in 1517, the Wilkes riots of 1768 and the Gordon Riots of 1780, for instance -- with the organisational element first being featured in the Chartist protests of the 19th century.

The march had two prongs before it merged on Piccadilly - the Gower Street section being for those attending from the North of England and the Embankment section for everyone else. We finally made our way from the NFT to Embankment via a convoluted route involving Blackfriars Bridge, as the police had kindly closed off the recently-opened Hungerford Footbridge. Once we had reached the starting point there was no turning back -- we were hemmed in by temporary fencing to the right of us, the River Thames to the left, the police to our rear and the amassed crowd in front. Surprisingly the policing on the march was very 'light-touch', the ratio of protesters to law enforcers was higher than usual. As soon as we had proceeded in our 'marching', we were brought to a halt for no apparent reason and were routinely subjected to 'Mexican sound waves' where those around us would make all manner of noise in order for it to radiate out along the march. At this point I noticed discernibly 'non-political' types looking on with unease as a crowd of Trotskyists chanted "1, 2, 3, 4, we don't want your stupid war, 5, 6, 7, 8, spend it on the welfare state!" I guess they weren't used to etiquette of marching and wondered which welfare state these people were referring to -- child benefit payments to already well-off types or dole handouts to the jobless? Indeed, the person manning the tannoy system regularly announced his surprise at the lack of the mass chanting that is often considered de rigueur on these outings and tried to initiate a few of his own, to little appreciable effect.

The march picked up pace and managed to sustain some distance under our feet before it stopped again, as it tried to snake round the junction of Embankment and Parliament Square at Westminster Bridge. The government buildings to our right were under the heavy guard of any number of yellow-jacketed policemen, most of who were subject to cancelled leave that weekend because of the inconvenient protest. It was at this point that I realised the impotence of the protest at this level. Here were the entire nation's revolutionaries, anarchists, Trotskyists (and all points in between), immediately adjacent to the symbols of capitalism and government power, and all they could think about was proceeding in an orderly manner so they could sell some papers and listen to speeches by Jessie Jackson and Tony Benn in Hyde Park. 1968 seemed more distant than just 35 years ago. As the march finally snaked round, with the tower of Big Ben and Parliament in sight, it was greeted by a number of people who were sat on the walls of Westminster tube station to observe the protesters file past. Some good natured humour and messages of support were exchanged, one girl even had a triangle of fur mounted on a sign which read "The only Bush I trust is my own!".

We then filed up Whitehall, once again flanked on both sides by government buildings to our right and left. Here I was reminded of post-war Labour Government Minister Douglas Jay's oft-repeated patrician mantra: "The man in Whitehall knows best". Right now it was the men in the Ministry of Defence on Whitehall who had assumed his arrogant mantle on this particular occasion. As the march picked up pace and the sun finally shone in our faces, I could not help but feel defiant. At this rate, we would be in Hyde Park in time to hear the speeches I thought. It was not to be -- the pedestrianisation works in Trafalgar Square brought the march to another timely halt, with what we had gained on Haymarket meaning nothing as the two prongs of the march met in Piccadilly under the sight of Eros and the flashing advertising hoardings so eagerly used by Hollywood to depict London in their films.

The slow trudge along Piccadilly was rendered dull by flagging spirits, with banners curling in the middle as those carrying them began to feel weary and the cold bit in further. As early evening winter darkness descended, only the sight of the Wellington Monument on the edge of Hyde Park, that homage to earlier wars against the French, silhouetted against the West London sky, could lift them. The final approach to Hyde Park saw an amusing exchange of sectarian banter between warring factions on the march, somewhat neglecting to remember what the occasion was about. To be expected really though.

Once the march reached Hyde Park, it all felt a bit anti-climatic. We had in fact been victims of the march's apparent success -- the sheer volume of human traffic had delayed us long enough to prevent us reaching the designated rally spot in time for the speeches. The Rt. Hon Tessa Jowell Minister of Culture, as the banana republic style befitted her title, had decreed that the microphones should to be turned off by 5pm to ensure the grass in Hyde Park was not trampled to oblivion. The Green Party could sleep safely now, obviously.

This was my generation's Grosvenor Square. Yet it all seemed a bit establishment really. We skulked off in search of the nearest pub, only to see them all packed to health and safety regulations-defying levels with anarcho-crusty types and bearded Trotskyists -- the non-political types having made their way to their people carriers it appeared. Eventually we settled for 'Shoeless Joe's' in Mayfair, although the clientele clearly hadn't been marching anywhere or galvanised by anything other than their love of Gucci and Lacoste. As we nursed our drinks and reflected on the day's events, those around us (co-workers of financial institutions at leisure, by the looks of things) looked down their noses at us -- me with my white Adidas and jeans sodden with mud and moisture. It was at this point that I wanted to resume the march again and smash capitalism with whatever was left of my sore and aching feet. Somehow it had all seemed worth it now.




ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Stevens lives in London and periodically attends Goldsmiths College. He works in urban renewal and city planning, fascinated as he is with architecture and cityscapes. His loves include techno music, disused underground stations and nuclear shelters, satire, brunettes and trashy fiction, in no particular order. His hates are too numerous to list or dwell on longer than five seconds.





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