How to hide more than a 100,000 people in plain sight? That part is easy – pretend it never happened, and if you do accidentally mention it, make sure you call it something misleading.
So yesterday those 100,000+ people marched from Park Lane to Parliament Square. Mostly it was ignored by the media, especially the most trusted news source, the BBC. In effect, it never happened. A non-event, staged by non-people, nothing to see here, move along please.
As a youthful protestor for various causes, I got used to this. We were rent-a-mob, stuffed into student-union sponsored coaches, off for a jolly. It wasn’t fair then – our causes were real, from racism to nuclear weapons, from coal mines, to land mines – but there was a trace of truth to those who scorned us. Many who marched were not personally affected by the causes they supported, or else, as with nuclear weapons, the fears were almost too big to contemplate.
Yesterday was not like that.
The unreported march was not a single event, but the work of a nascent movement; a confusing, growing movement, angry, clever and energised. The unreported protest, where it did get a mention, was usually referred to as a ‘Pro-EU’ march, or a protest by supporters of the European Union. This, too, is incorrect, deliberately, knowingly incorrect. The march, and the movement, is not so much pro-EU, as anti-Brexit. That difference matters.
It’s also heresy, of course. In the post-coup country ruled by the authoritarian Brexit Party, (with its self-neutered Opposition, the Nice, Kind, Keep Your Fingers Crossed Brexit Party), to be anti-Brexit is to be an “Enemy of the People”, a “Remoaner”, people who should be “strung up from lamp posts”, or assassinated. “Enemies of the People” was a real headline in a mass-circulation, politically-influential newspaper. “Remoaner” is an unpleasant term of abuse I heard most recently on the leading BBC TV politics programme, The Sunday Politics this morning. The “stringing up from lamp posts”, and similar proposals of terror are all over social media, including some from office holders in political parties and public life. The assassination was of a Member of Parliament whose ‘crime’ was to campaign against Brexit. So this stuff, the calculated denigration of legitimate actors and actions in a democracy, is a real and present danger. And we were protesting against it. You might think that to be a mild response to the oppressive regime of the Brexit Party and their apologists.
The unreported march was something else, too. There was organisation behind it, crowd-funded, a spontaneous response to Brexit. But the numbers on that march were so much more than just a head-count. Some people came, as I did, on a locally-organised coach, paying our own fare. The local organisation which booked the buses, and used social media to promote the event and sell tickets, was a spontaneous coming together of people who meet in a room in a pub, cross-party, no-party, committed and energetic. I’m talking of Birmingham, but similar groups, ad-hoc, local, definitely neither ‘metropolitan elite’, nor ‘citizens of nowhere’ are everywhere, at least in England and Wales.
Other people came as individuals, couples, families, mobilised by social media, carrying home-made placards (often very clever and witty, sometimes stinging and angry), They came by public transport from across the country, self-motivated.
Think about that for a moment. We aren’t actually a very demonstrative nation. Protest is hard. Politics, indeed, is hard. Canvassers for all parties find the general public turned off by politics, ever-ready to slam a door in the face, and with a ready line in abuse. So for an individual, a couple, a family with young children, and in some cases, the family dog, to come along to a protest march is an act of heroic moral resolution. To turn up, you really have to believe, whole-heartedly, that a cause is right and just.
This has happened before. I had a few conversations yesterday with people who had last protested against the invasion of Iraq. They drew no parallels between the two events, other than to make guesstimates as to the size of the crowd. I will draw a parallel, though. The two million people who mobilised to try to stop the invasion of Iraq were ignored. Most of the media were against them, they did not sway the vote in the Commons. The Iraq war happened.
In 2003, the government, and Parliament, and most of the media, had their way. Some of them scorned the two million as nothing but irrelevant Trots and pacifists, dupes of the sloganising leaders of the Stop The War Coalition. The protestors didn’t matter.
History now suggests that they ought to have mattered. The protestors then were from that deep, and wide reservoir of people who aren’t Party die-hards, and who worry about things with great seriousness. They said then, that the fall-out, the repercussions of war, would be terrible and long lasting. What they didn’t explicitly prophesy was that those repercussions would rumble like a fault-line, through the body politic in Britain.
That protest marked the beginning of the end of the magic reign of Tony Blair and New Labour. That they won one more election can’t disguise how badly their vote was on the slide. The protests also doomed the neoliberal dreams of David Cameron and George Osborne, two men who called Blair ‘The Master’. In a way, the Establishment reaction to the 2003 protests foretold the casual hubris that ended in that ill-fated referendum last year.
The people spoke in 2003. Now diplomats and generals recognise that the wisdom of that crowd was more acute than any dodgy dossier, or desk-warrior of ‘liberal interventionism’.
The moral is this. Sometimes the worries that pull people out onto the street in thoughtful, peaceful, serious protest are worth taking seriously even when the might of Government, the legislature, and the press are against them.
For if Brexit was the inchoate revolt of the residual working class, and (more numerous in its ranks) the declining lower-middle class, the anti-Brexit movement is the educated, socially-liberal, internationally-minded, sometimes economically-precarious, new middle class making its voices heard.
This group, a product of the welfare state, and the expansion of access to higher education, is the part of society that gets things done. They know how to do things, they run things, they are practical and hands-on, but also serious thinkers, anxious to do the right thing, to act on evidence, to be rational. They don’t like spin, and short-termism, and the lies and distortions of politics as it has come to be done ‘to us’ over the last thirty or forty years.
So the invisible marchers of yesterday, we who won’t go away, we who do things, who know things, and who watch those in power, and are determined to hold them to account – you can pretend we don’t exist. For now.