I knew it was going to be a good day as soon as I saw the knot of people at the bottom of the slope.
It had been a week of unrelieved gloom. A succession of bad economic news stories (more jobs lost, more businesses fleeing) coupled with the EU Withdrawal Bill clearing its last parliamentary hurdle. The chance of a ‘meaningful vote’ lost due to a dozen Tory MPs who failed to rebel and four Labour MPs who did. Against that background, the People’s Vote March was starting to feel as if it might just turn into the last sad hurrah from a dwindling band of diehard Remainers.
Then Saturday dawned bright and clear and everything changed.
There were twenty or more waiting at High Barnet Station. Some Committee members, yes, but also friends, neighbours and people I’d never met before. There were flags, home-made placards, blue and gold T-shirts festooned with stickers, and even a rather splendid pro-EU beret.
We boarded the train, occupying the second carriage from the front. At each stop we stuck our ‘Chipping Barnet for Europe’ banner out of the doors and all the way down the line more people joined us, running down the platform, swelling our ranks until the carriage was full of people heading for the march. We were smiling at each other, pleased to be among our own, feeling good about doing something at last rather than merely spectating as the country went to ruin. It was starting to look as if … but no one was going to tempt providence just yet.
By the time we got to Green Park, it was clear that something very special was happening. Protesters streamed out of the train and up the escalator, banners and flags already held high. We emerged blinking into the sunshine, unable to do more than shuffle out of the station to join the great mass of people gathered in the park, awaiting the start of the march.
What struck you most was the colours – EU and Union flags rippling in the breeze, costumes and T-shirts, hats and balloons. The placards (each one different, so unlike the pre-printed ones beloved of rent-a-mob protesters) revealed varying degrees of artistry and a range of slogans from the gently self-deprecating (‘Down With This Sort of Thing’ and ‘Careful Now’ borrowed from Father Ted; ‘I’m Tired of Holding This Sign’; ‘NHS – Brexit Wrecks It’; ‘Brexit – Every Little Hurts’; ‘This is a Sign That I’m Very Unhappy’), through the deadly serious (‘£50 Visa to Visit Europe? Is This What You Voted For?’), to the clever and almost scatological (‘For *U*K’s Sake Stop Brexit’).
We posed for the obligatory group photo, then joined the human river pouring into Pall Mall. We were off!
Or rather we weren’t. Pall Mall was solid. The crowd extended as far as the eye could see but for the best part of an hour the only real movement was the swirling and fluttering flags, the banners and placards held aloft, and the occasional outbreak of applause sweeping through the crowd like a breeze through grass. And that’s when we all realised. This was HUGE. We weren’t moving because the whole route was crammed with people. There was nowhere to move to!
No one got impatient – there was no pushing or shoving, there were no angry shouts. I’ve never before seen so many people so deliriously happy to be stuck in a queue. We waited in the sunshine, as the police and broadcasters’ helicopters wheeled overhead and rumours began to circulate about just how big this was. The most conservative estimate seemed to be ‘around 100,000’. Some were claiming ‘half a million’. Having seen the Sky News coverage (my, how we waved at that helicopter) I’m happy to settle for somewhere in between. There were marches in 2016 and 2017 but I can say with hand on heart that this was the biggest by far.
Slowly, slowly, we crawled past the impromptu sound system blasting out reggae, past the gentlemen’s clubs and the heroic statuary gracing Waterloo Place, and finally reached Trafalgar Square. Here at last it became possible to walk at a steady pace and on we swept, down Whitehall – past the stolid government buildings (the Cabinet Office doors were festooned with stickers), past Downing Street (boo), on past the Cenotaph and into Parliament Square. Or rather into the edge of Parliament Square, where the humped black statue of Churchill, surrounded by blue and gold European flags, his plinth obscured by a Union Jack, scowls doggedly at the boarded and scaffolded towers of Parliament, its silenced bells and stopped clock a perfect metaphor for our broken democracy.
Speeches, then. Many and variable in both quality and duration. Andy Parsons made a jovial and mischievous MC. A businessman, speaking from experience, set the politicians to rights. The indefatigable Femi spoke for the youth whose future is at stake. Gina Miller, doyenne of the Supreme Court, got a rousing and well deserved reception. Caroline Lucas lit up the square with controlled but passionate fury. Tony Robinson had ‘a cunning plan’ and spoke of reclaiming patriotism from the Leavers. Vince Cable, curiously subdued, seemed a little out of his comfort zone, and David Lammy worked the crowd with his usual gusto. And finally Anna Soubry, voice nearly gone, slightly dishevelled, true as ever to her principles and refusing to be cowed by her own party.
It would be churlish to mention the Brexiters’ march, which attracted a couple of thousand, or the chant of ‘Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?’ that echoed round Parliament Square (started by some of the Lib Dems, but taken up by many more in the crowd). It would be churlish too to ask about our own MP, Theresa Villiers, who argues for the hardest of Brexits while knowing in her heart that leaving would be a disaster for her constituents and for her country.
So instead let’s end as we began. It was a good day. People from all over the country, from all parties and none, came together in friendship and peace. They made their voices heard.
After the last two years, it felt like Hope.