Will Lane describes his experiences and thoughts after attending the Put it to the People March.
It was relatively warm when I stepped out onto the Victoria station platform Saturday morning, not knowing quite what to expect. I’d packed a flag and printed two homemade posters I hoped I could stick to one of the free placards I assumed they’d be giving out. To that end I’d also taken some Pritt Stick and, to round out the Heath Robinson feel, some garden twine to tie the flag around my shoulders.
When I got on the 10:07 to Victoria at Dorking Station there was no obvious sign of any other participants, but by the time we pulled in at 11:05 there was no doubt who was heading to Park Lane for the march.
The crowd took off through Victoria station, tickets flashing on the barriers as EU flags billowed out from blue-clad shoulders. I’d considered taking the underground to Marble Arch but was informed by one of the more experienced marchers that the tube would be full to bursting. This didn’t matter anyway as the crowd clearly knew where it was going, and so I followed them for a brisk twenty or so minute walk, the marchers breaking off and flowing back together around traffic lights and narrow pavements.
I entered Hyde Park, where thousands of early protestors mingled with each other in the morning sun. Much of the crowd had situated itself in the area around the Wellington monument, with rivulets of people spilling out on to Park Lane. Massive flags of all descriptions filled the air, costumes abounded and many people had clearly been re-discovering their childhood love of Papier-mâché and glue paste. My favourite was a recreation of The Lion and the Unicorn that was almost as big as the marcher himself.
Unicorns were a theme in costumes, banners and placards elsewhere too, a symbol of the fantasy world that many Remainers feel hard Brexiters are living in with their support of a No-deal. Other common tropes included puns on EU (‘never gonna give EU up’) and the rather less wholesome ‘BrexShit’.
Heading to the march proper I discovered a small marquee stand where Lib Dems were handing out material in support of a ‘Final Say’ referendum. I asked for a balloon and stuck my poster to one side with copious amounts of Sellotape. Chatting to the staff and protestors there I was struck by the internationalism of the crowd. The first protestor I talked to was a British Israeli, who felt she was marching for the British half of her identity, and I moved away from the stand to allow a bagpipe player the space he needed to get his instrument ready.
A Lib Dem handing out stickers was clearly enthused by the recent announcement that Vince Cable will soon be stepping down as Lib Dem leader. ‘Nice, but a bit past it’ was the general sentiment that day whenever his name cropped up.
At this point the march was about to begin and people began to move into formation. It hadn’t really struck me just how many people were there until I saw the crowd snaking back along Hyde Park corner. Before we began however, there was a burst of noise through the tannoy and a speaker from Another Europe is Possible (a Labour affiliate) introduced Laura Parker, National Co-ordinator of Momentum. I gathered after the march that there had been a separate protest by the Left Bloc at Stanhope Gate.
The speech went down rather poorly from what I could see. The language used by Parker and the other speaker was very out of kilter with the general tone of the march. ‘Socialist Europe’ cropped up a few times, along with other references to socialism, all of which fell flat. No one seemed interested in that kind of tribal politics. A reference to ‘greedy bosses’ seemed to strike an especially dud note in a crowd where many people could have been self-employed or small business owners. This wasn’t helped by both speakers talking far too fast, giving the whole thing the amateurish feel of a speech at a sparsely attended left-wing student demo.
In response some protestors near the stand struck up an impromptu ‘Where’s Jeremy Corbyn’, who, it has to be said, was rather conspicuous by his absence. I heard a small group of people muttering about the speakers ‘hijacking’ the march and went to get their opinion. It turned out each of the group was from a different political background, one Lib Dem, one Tory and one independent. This rather set the tone for the march, which was, much to my surprise, almost exclusively nonpartisan. There were banners and placards from many different national parties and political organisations: the Lib Dems, Labour affiliates, the Women’s Equality Party and The Independent Group to name a few. I even saw one brave protestor with a ‘Tories against Brexit’ placard.
He was gently ribbed for this by some in the crowd, but it was all in good humour; the atmosphere that day was tolerant and welcoming. The number of national and regional flags in the air was astonishing, some sending me straight to Google before I found out that a mass street protests tend to play havoc with London’s 4G reception. I think my favourite grouping had to be Cornwall For Europe, men and women proudly striding along London’s streets, St Piran’s Flag flying high in the breeze, holding placards in their arms that read ‘Bramm Orth Bretmes’ (literally ‘a Fart to Brexit’ in Kernewek Kemmyn).
All the same, it’s worth noting that Union Flags were second only to the EU flag. The march certainly didn’t feel like an event where people were shedding their British identity and taking on a European one. it was an additive rather than replacive process, with a million plus people adding a European side to their existing national, regional and local character.
The attempts by some on social media to paint the marchers as intolerant towards Leavers couldn’t be further than the truth; had they been I would have known about it. As I hadn’t found a Union Flag in time for the march I ended up with the Cross of St George draped over my shoulders. While not inherently the sign of a Leaver it was noticeable how few people flew England’s flag on the march, and I did wonder if I’d get any comments or pushback. As it was, I got a single comment: ‘You look like you’re on the wrong march mate!’ and a few funny looks, but they mostly seemed to be from people wondering if I was a counter protestor.
A Scottish gentleman holding an enormous Saltire with the EU stars ringing the middle told me that a young colleague of his didn’t like the idea of flying the Scottish flag because of the connection of national flags to fascism. It couldn’t have been less like the atmosphere on the march that day.
I met the gentleman and his wife while talking to a young couple who’d joined the march from Lewisham. Like more than a few people I spoke to, the couple were Labour voters who had found their support for the party ebbing because of Labour’s position on Brexit, the anti-Semitism allegations and Corbyn’s connections to groups such as the IRA. They were still considering voting Labour because of their local MP Vicky Foxcroft, who they thought was excellent, but any enthusiasm they had for Labour as a party seemed long burnt out.
It was while we were deep in conversation about the Scottish independence referendum that we were engaged by the gentleman and his wife, who were SNP supporters. They disagreed with my characterisation of the independence referendum as divisive, and instead suggested that it had been an uplifting experience for the people of Scotland, but that ‘fear’ tactics had won out in the end. Since I don’t live in Scotland I was willing to concede to their greater knowledge, but their characterisation of the Independence referendum was slightly marred when another, pro-union Scot appeared and the two sides engaged in the closest thing to a full-on argument that I saw while marching.
Just about everything that was brought up, from Trident to taxes, triggered fervent argument, and there didn’t seem much that could be agreed upon. It was a sobering reminder that, while you might find a cause uplifting and engaging, another person may see it as anything but.
Pondering this as the march moved on, I found myself next to a woman holding a British Medical Association placard. I hadn’t realised that the BMA had come out in favour of a second referendum, and so I asked her about it. It turned out she was a Coventry GP, who was at the march with her son because of the damage she believed Brexit would do to the NHS and healthcare more generally. She had been a Labour supporter, but she felt she might vote Lib Dem next time due to her opposition to Corbyn’s leadership.
It was at this point during the march that the I noticed more and more anti-Corbyn posters and placards swinging in the breeze. The section of the crowd I was in before had a relatively high number of Labour affiliate members in it, but as the march progressed and the crowd swelled they thinned out and Corbyn’s face could be seen more and more, usually twinned with May in caricatures with the two of them as a pro-Brexit tag-team.
The most obvious example of this came when a man nearby began chanting “What’s Brexit?” to which the crowd replied “Bollocks!” and he continued:
“What’s Theresa May?”
“What’s Jeremy Corbyn?
While the “Bollocks!” for Corbyn was slightly softer than the other two, it hardly bodes well for Corbyn’s chances of winning over this particular crowd. Other figures of ridicule were more obvious: May, Johnson, Davies and Farage were all well represented, while some protestors threw curveballs with representations of Raab, Leadsome, Gove and even a few Hoeys.
Many protestors had printed out tweets from prominent Leave campaigners in the style of the Led By Donkeys movement, taking them to task for the promises made by the Leave campaign during the 2016 referendum. What I found more interesting was that despite all of this the march itself did not feel anti-Conservative. While I did see the occasional Get The Tories Out placard, those were mostly mass produced and handed out by the Another Europe is Possible organisers. The mood of the march was against Brexiters of whatever political persuasion, rather than something that ran along party lines. Indeed I got the feeling that if Dominic Grieve or Ken Clarke were to become Tory leader and push through a second referendum, many on the march would back them enthusiastically in principle, if perhaps not at the ballot box.
While it was clear what we were marching against, I had assumed that there would not be much consensus on what issues other than Brexit the country now faces. Once again I was proven wrong. Many of the marchers I talked to brought up the same issues: austerity, food banks and government cuts; while electoral reform and the need for a new movement against racism were also mentioned in broader terms. There was definitely a sense that things needed to change, that the country was off track and in dire need of reform.
This desire for change was what really stuck with me after leaving the march, which I did at just after four in the afternoon. I arrived at Trafalgar Square in time to hear the last of Michael Heseltine’s speech on the loudspeaker system; the route had been so jammed with people that It had taken me four hours to get there, and the road to Parliament Square beyond was at a standstill.
I met up with some friends at a nearby pub, and afterwards, on the train home, reflected on what I had seen and heard that day. If I had to describe the march in political terms I would call it ‘Liberal’, in the broadest sense of the word. From what I could see the marchers were open and tolerant people, internationalist in outlook and progressive in thought, not interested in the kind of tribalism that leads people to join traditional political parties. My guess is we have not heard the last from this new political grouping, and that with Brexit looming we may be hearing from it again sooner than many expect.
The next day while walking the dog, I met a family out enjoying the sunshine. When I mentioned my involvement in the march the husband began asking me questions about its size and scale, and was very enthused about the prospect of revoking article 50. The sense of hope he had surrounding what he called the “return of common sense” was palpable, and left me wondering just how deep the rejection of Brexit might run within the electorate. In the aftermath of the protest, and with the petition to revoke Article 50 over five million, there was definitely a sense of optimism in the air that spring morning. Hope was flowering for the anti-Brexit forces, along with the belief that something might, finally, have changed for the better.