S&C Community Reporter Helen Salsbury reports on how it felt to be one in a million (or so) on the ‘Put It to the People’ march that took place in London on March 23rd, 2019. The march route led from the corner of Hyde Park to Parliament Square.
I’m not an activist, and I’m not someone who speaks loud and long about politics. Far from it. My main response to Brexit has been to take as many steps back from it as seems necessary to maintain my equilibrium during these difficult times. I’ve been known to ban the “B” word from conversations.
Having said that, I never had any doubt about where I stood. Prior to the referendum I did my homework, reading widely, so that my decision would be based on more than just personal preference and an opinion that we are more likely to solve the world’s problems by working together than by putting up borders.
As such, after the referendum, I grieved for what we had lost and struggled quietly to understand why it had happened and what this meant for us as a country. I worked for acceptance, and I shifted my attention to things I could change. And I hoped that somewhere down the line some sane solution would be found and that even though it wasn’t the solution I had chosen, it might be one we could all live with.
But after nearly three years that still hasn’t happened. And so I chose to support the calls for a ‘People’s Vote’ and to attend the ‘Put It to the People’ march, turning up in London with a rather nervous feeling as I contemplated the record breaking numbers anticipated.
I once attended an ‘England versus Holland’ football match in London, and for hours was welded into a molten mass of people; pressed intimately against strangers as our giant form squeezed like toothpaste through London, up and down tube station steps, along crowded streets, into, and later out of, a packed stadium.
In truth I expected something similar on this march.
So I was pleasantly surprised not to bump into this ‘million strong crowd’ as soon as we turned the corner to Marble Arch (our designated assembly area).
Yes, there were plenty of people. But they were not all concertinaed into one vast queue, the way I’d pictured. The organisers were so chilled you hardly knew they were there, except that somehow we’d been quietly directed into a spacious road (one half of the A4202) alongside other marchers; across the green division we could see more marchers on the other side of the road; to our other side, Hyde Park had another loose-knit collection of would-be marchers; and, gradually, as we stood and chatted and admired the many banners, the green division between us also filled.
There was much to keep us interested as we waited. I noticed the coaches which had brought people from all over the UK, the regional banners and flags which included: Scotland (“We voted to remain”), Cornwall, as well as many, many Northern and Southern towns (including North Norfolk Youth). I was pleased to notice ‘Salisbury’ placards, and ‘North Yorkshire’, both of which had a personal connection for me; the banner ‘Born in Sunderland made in EU’ also struck a chord with my Northern roots.
All the main political parties showed their colours: green, yellow, red and blue – a visual reminder of the way Brexit has split opinion.
And there were generations. Old people in wheelchairs, using sticks, carrying lightweight foldable seats, carrying banners (“Grandma against Brexit.”), choosing to cover every possible surface, including themselves, in stickers. There were prams, scooters, pushchairs, dogs, often used as makeshift billboards. There were mums (“I’m not angry, I’m just very disappointed”), dads and children (“You’re being very silly”).
I was impressed by a young girl who sat on her father’s shoulders and held her placard overhead with great determination. She’d lower it, rest for a moment, then hoist it aloft again, sometimes balancing it on her head for additional support. For as long as she was near me, she never gave up.
And then there were the young people, many of whom had been too young to vote in the referendum.
We saw science fiction fans (a placard quoting Jean-Luc Picard discussing the founding of the “United Federation of Planets”), painters, students and musicians (‘Raving against Brexit’). We saw placards in different languages, including Latin, German, French (‘Je Suis EU’, ‘Brexit? Pas en Notre Nom. Resterons En Europe.’).
I was struck by the creativity and humour (some satirical, some whimsical) of so many of the banners. (‘Is London always this crowded?’ ‘Brexit is messier than my bedroom’).
With so much to look at and so much chatter and so many accents (both regional and international) to enjoy it wasn’t hard to wait. And finally, one o’clock came, and we were off.
Ah, Yes, Well...
With so many people, it was hardly a Jarrow-style, pick up your feet and march progress. The rows gradually filtered together, like many lanes of cars all merging into one. And yes, there were horns blowing. But not to speed things up, just out of exuberance.
The atmosphere continued to be happy, relaxed. There was no one pushing, no one trying to get anywhere. It was enough to be where we were, making a slow, shuffling progress towards the start-line, which we passed seventy minutes after the march started.
From time to time, waves of cheers and clapping travelled towards us via the crowd and we all joined in with no idea why, until much later when we passed the people leading the cheers and chants, encountered the giant speakers whose boom had been apparent for a while, the encouragement from the sides, and the various characters who waited to greet us (including a man dressed as Teresa May).
We swarmed past the Ritz, past people on statues waving flags, past an immense drum, and past a small contingent of ‘Green Leaves’ representatives, quietly and valiantly holding out leaflets on a traffic island in the centre of the marching swarm. As we broke around them, I took a leaflet, and noticed that there was no disturbance on either side (leave or remain), that they were just quietly there, true to their own convictions.
And the convictions on display were numerous. I was struck by the variety of reasons on display from the people were marching. The ‘I love cheese,’ and ‘I love my red passport’, merging into the less humorous concerns for the NHS (‘Healthier in the EU’, ‘NHS against Brexit’), for the future of the young, for peace, for jobs, for the environment (‘environmental protection stronger with the EU’), for science, for free movement (‘Build Unions not Borders’), etc.
A ‘To Do List’ placard summed up one of my own concerns – that by focussing so much attention on Brexit for the last three years we’re neglecting other pressing issues: halting climate change, funding the NHS, tackling poverty, helping asylum seekers, and thinking about the legacy we’re leaving for our young.
My companions and I never made it to Parliament Square to hear Nicola Sturgeon, Tom Watson (Labour’s deputy leader), the Mayor of London and the many other speakers.
But it didn’t matter. Being there was enough.
One of my companions was wondering how much people had spent to get there, and just how big the total investment in the march might be. However, what struck me most was the investment of time, effort and determination: choosing words, making placards and costumes, travelling distances, carrying children, pushing wheelchairs, turning out even though you’re eighty, ninety, a hundred.
Perhaps this, more than anything else, gave me a sense of what it actually means to belong to the UK. The good stuff. The stuff that has felt so threatened in the last few years. It seems to me that by focusing on our differences we’ve forgotten what we are, what we can be: stoic, determined, cheerful, friendly, creative, humorous and tolerant of each others’ different opinions.
And perhaps, as well as being a statement of what so many people feel so strongly – our right to have a say in what happens to our country – this march was something else, a celebration of our humanity, our strength and of how good it is to come together and act.
Further information and links:
- Petition to Revoke Article 50
- People’s Vote, the march organisers
- Cornwall for Europe, ‘Many who voted Leave in Cornwall are now well aware that they were lied to, and have changed their minds.’
- Brexit: most doctors and nurses now think NHS will get worse, Guardian, October 2018
- Brexit march: ‘1 million’ Put It To The People protesters stage historic rally for a second referendum, Independent, March 2019
This story is part of our ongoing series from our #ReclaimTheNews team, a group of local residents trained in investigative journalism in partnership with The Centre for Investigative Journalism. The group now forms S&C’s Community Reporting team. Check back regularly for more news from the team and help us to spread the word by sharing their articles with your friends and networks.