Every veteran of protests and demonstrations agrees â€“ nothing has ever been like this. The tradition is that you inform an average civilian that you’re going on a march, and they look at you with a mixture of puzzlement and pity, as if you’d said you were spending the weekend morris dancing. But this time they say: “Oh yes, on Saturday. We’ll all be there.” This is wonderfully encouraging, but slightly disconcerting. These people are your neighbours, your cousin, the bloke you sit next to at the football: they’re not supposed to go on demonstrations. It’s like being 19 and your grandma saying: “This week I’ll come with you to the Ministry of Sound to get off my face. But I must make sure I don’t mix up my Es with my green ones.”
If you think I exaggerate, amongst those proud to be photographed signing petitions against the war have been Chris Evans, Jerry Hall and Jimmy Hill. What if you find yourself next to Jimmy on the march? That would be like one of those weird dreams that troubles you for a week. Especially if he starts chanting.
One of the organisers of this Saturday’s march guessed that 60 per cent of those attending will be taking part in their first demonstration. She told me: “We get dozens of calls from people who ask questions such as, ‘Where do I register?’” Which reminds me of my own confusion when I first took part in a march, in support of the Anti-Nazi League in 1978. Right up until it set off, I wondered whether, when on a march, you actually marched. I was unsure whether everyone got in line and kept step, making me slightly anxious that I’d be the only one shuffling out of formation, so that somewhere around Piccadilly Circus the whole thing would stop, with 100,000 people muttering: “Nurr. He’s spoilt it for everyone.”
My next protest was more typical. It took place outside the Foreign Office, and was against the Labour government’s links to the Shah of Iran. While 1 per cent of Iranians had access to medical facilities, 40 per cent of the country’s budget went on arms, and Britain was happy to be one of the chief suppliers. One of the Shah’s tricks was to use his secret police force, known as Savak, to bulldoze entire villages if he suspected they were harbouring dissidents. (At that point it seemed that British and American policy towards a Middle Eastern tyrant who murdered his own people was to sell him weapons of mass destruction.)
There were only about 30 of us at the protest, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do. If you arrive at a party on your own, at least you can use small talk to get to know people, but it seemed inappropriate to wander up to someone on a protest against the selling of tanks to a dictator and say: “Hello, I’m Mark. Did you have to come far?” Then the chanting started. Someone would yell “David Owen” and everyone would shout back “Shah’s puppet”. Should I join in? What if there was some hidden rule, such as not shouting back after every fifth “David Owen”? Then I might shout “Shah’s puppet” on my own, while everyone else put their heads in their hands and said: “All right, let’s start again.”
Throughout the 1980s there were regular protests involving a sizeable minority of the population. More than 100,000 marched separately against unemployment, against apartheid and in support of the miners, but there were countless other actions that didn’t achieve quite that prominence.
One of the strangest protests I took part in was when an unemployment march staged a publicity stunt by invading Eton College. The advance was led by a posse of Glaswegian teenagers with spiky orange and purple hair at a time when spiky orange and purple hair was deemed to be terrifying. As we ran through the gates the Eton boys fled, their black cloaks streaming elegantly behind them as they dived inside the school building like batsmen in danger of being run out. Once inside they hurriedly bolted a vast wooden door as if they were being chased by a mummy in a horror film.
But my lowest point came when four of us from our left-wing political group decided to join a “Round London March for Jobs” as it passed nearby. We waited at the edge of the Wandsworth Road, and eventually six people strolled past carrying a banner. “Excuse me, are you the march for jobs?” we asked. They said they were. Unfortunately, they were also from a different political faction to us, and their leader said: “You can’t join us if you carry that banner. We’ve got widespread trade-union backing for this march, and you’ll jeopardise our support with that banner.” We said: “There’s six of you.” This made no difference, so we folded up our banner and marched behind them. They refused to talk to us. And I was acutely aware that everyone who drove past was looking at us as if to say: “Is that a march, or 10 blokes on the way home from the pub who’ve found a banner in a skip?” I was grateful that they didn’t know the truth: that six of us were thinking: “This was all right until the other four turned up.”
So can a demonstration make any difference? One of the standard official responses is to insist that protests involve only a handful of fanatics. This is an attitude that assumes that people are too dumb to get annoyed about being mistreated, and that the only ones who complain are those on the fringes of society. So I’m sure that when the Romans marched into a field in search of Spartacus, they said: “There’s nothing to worry about here. They’re all middle-class students pretending to be slaves.”
A tougher objection is that, however well intentioned, demonstrations tend simply to be ignored. The first answer to this must be that at certain times, mass protest clearly has made a difference. It’s doubtful whether suffrage would have been won without the agitation of reformers and Chartists, including a demonstration of 300,000 in south London in 1848. Similarly, the poll tax would probably still be with us if it hadn’t been for the famous Trafalgar Square demonstration in March 1990.
In time of war, governments are especially sensitive. During the Napoleonic wars, the protests in Britain against Prime Minister Pitt’s invasion of France reached such a level that government agents were sent into anti-war meetings as spies and the leaders were arrested. Pub landlords were threatened if they allowed meetings on their premises, and teachers were sacked for “traitorous expressions”. (What did they say: “This war isn’t clever and it isn’t funny”?).
King George III imposed the custom that after any military setback there should be a national fast, which protesters delighted in ignoring. This must have been marvellous; the only demonstrations in history that involved not undergoing discomfort such as walking three miles with a banner, while all those conforming couldn’t wait for it to end. But none of this would have been imposed unless Pitt and the King had felt threatened by the protests in the first place.
During the American Civil War, Lord Palmerston was keen for the British Navy to intervene on the side of the South, but changed his mind abruptly after a series of enormous British protests in support of the slaves. And the many demonstrations around the world against the Vietnam War clearly played a part in forcing America eventually to call the carnage off.
Perhaps the greatest impact a large demonstration has is on those who take part, as each person becomes aware that they are not on their own. As an isolated individual, your protest may not extend beyond swearing at Newsnight, but sensing that you’re part of a mass movement can transform the same person into someone eager to support the boycott, resist the bigot, circulate the petition or stand in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. It’s impossible to say which specific events led to the fall of apartheid, but it’s fairly certain that if no one had ever protested against it, it would still exist.
George Bush Senior said that one of his main concerns before the last Gulf War was “the strength of the anti-war movement”. And he faced nothing comparable to the vast wave of Jimmy Hill-supported opposition encompassing the planet now. For Saturday, 45 coaches have been booked from the centre of Sheffield, more than 50 from Bristol, and 50 plus a train from Central Manchester. The island of Jersey is holding its own demonstration, which is sure to be its biggest ever, beating the previous record, which was apparently against the destruction of a popular hedge.
But the nature of the opposition can be better understood from the individual stories. For example, a group of nuns in Hackney have formed an anti-war group, and have taken boxes of badges and leaflets, which should surely form the plot for a remake of The Sound of Music. A schoolboy in Muswell Hill has persuaded the local chip shop to give out a leaflet for the march with every bag of chips. An 80-year-old woman in Hampshire rang the Stop the War office to say she was sorry she couldn’t get to the march as her limbs were a bit dodgy, but instead she was willing to make her protest by lying down in the middle of the M3. What a magnificent catchphrase: “I’m prepared to lay down on the motorway â€“ but that’s it.”
A typical letter to the office came from a rugby player who says he told his club he couldn’t come to the annual dinner and piss-up as he was going on the demonstration, at which point several of his team-mates announced that they were going as well. What will the traditional left make of that, when one section of the march is punctuating the chants with attempts to light their own farts? A group formed on the internet has recruited 9,500 supporters from 82 countries; it’s calling itself “Masturbate for Peace”, boasting such slogans as “Whack your sack, not Iraq”.
But, best of all, 60 schoolboys are going from an anti-war group formed at Eton College. From out of the same gates through which we poured 20 years ago will come a batch of public schoolboys, this time not to run from a demonstration, but to join one. One of the protesters told me: “This is schoolboy-led, as only a small minority here are pro-war.”
For most people, Blair and Bush have simply lost the argument. Despite being in a hole, these two politicians can’t stop digging. Every piece of compelling new evidence for the necessity of war turns out to be even more ludicrous than the last, so we’ve now arrived at plagiarised student theses and crackly intercepted phone calls that couldn’t secure a conviction for possession of dope. And this to justify chucking around the armed might of the greatest superpower the world has known, the equivalent of a Bali bombing every night for as long as it takes. All this will be carried out in the name of human rights and democracy by the power that destroyed both in Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Indonesia. It will be in the name of ridding the world of chemical weapons, by the power that spread napalm and Agent Orange across half a continent. It will be to rid the world of a dictator who gassed his own people and invaded Iran, when those acts could only have been carried out with the backing of the superpower in the first place.
Robert Del Naja of the pop group Massive Attack said last week: “Before the last Stop the War demo, I felt uneasy about telling my friends I was going on it. This time my attitude is, if they’re not on it I shan’t speak to the fuckers for two years.” If that’s not enough incentive, consider that if you’re not there you run the risk of being more apathetic on the issue of human rights than Jimmy Hill.