What does democracy look like? How do you participate in democracy if you are too young to vote? Was the referendum on 23rd June 2016 the first and last time that the British people will be given the chance to express their views on this most important issue?
It is because my dad thinks the answer to the last question is emphatically “NO” that I found myself and my younger sister accompanying him on the March for a People’s Vote in central London on Saturday 20th October. (We could have brought our dog along as well – hundreds did, the dog’s Brexit that we now face).
On this beautiful sunny autumn afternoon, democracy looked like over 600,000 people gathered to march through the heart of London to Trafalgar Square, Downing Street and ultimately Parliament. We were participating in a democratic act of peaceful protest in the capital, even though I am still 9 months too young to vote.
As we left home, we sensed that something was stirring in the shires – the train to London was packed with folk, excited but not sure what to expect, buoyed up by the numbers heading towards the capital. The underground trains were jammed packed with demonstrators (and a few bewildered tourists wondering what this tidal wave of mild-mannered political activism was all about). We burst into the daylight and fresh air at Marble Arch tube station at about noon and found ourselves at the back of a queue of people over half a million long. And there we stood, on Park Lane, moving very slowly forward for the next hour and a half. The attendance at the march was so far in excess of the organisers’ estimate of a couple of hundred thousand, that the police had to pace the movement of the crowd into the centre of town to avoid overcrowding.
The atmosphere was happy and humorous, helped by the weather and the fact that this was the first Saturday of half term. There were many families with at least three generations marching, and plenty of support from across the country – coaches had brought groups up from Cornwall and down from Yorkshire. What seemed to unite everyone was a sense of frustration and bewilderment that the British, a sensible moderate people, had wound up in a strange place two years after the original referendum on leaving the European Union, facing bad choices that no one had voted for in the first place. Of the many witty banners on display, the one that captured the mood simply said, “Measure twice, cut once”. In other words, for the most important decision that the country will make in a generation, why wouldn’t we all (whether for or against leaving the EU), want to draw breath, consider the options to us now and vote in an informed way about which way to go next.
Meanwhile, on the ground, after nearly two hours of dawdling, enlivened by a bike posse with a mobile disco setting up an impromptu dance in the park, we decided to go off-piste to get a bit of movement. It was fun walking up normally busy main roads around Hyde Park Corner with traffic stuck for hours by the tide of people surging past. We picked up speed in St James Park, and then re-joined the tide as it poured through Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall towards the seat of Government. The volume of the crowd rose, with chants, horns and smoke bombs all filling the air – “What do we want? A people’s vote? When do we want it? Now!” Passing the Cabinet Office, where the Prime Minister meets with her Government, the official entrance was plastered with protest stickers. Eventually we made it to the gates of Downing Street, where the atmosphere and chanting became a little bit more heated. We had got as far as we could, blocked by a few hundred thousand ahead from it to Parliament, so we peeled off down towards the Thames to find a cup of tea.
Was it worth it? Yes, as a unique way to start your holidays and to take part in the largest demonstration in the UK since 2003, when nearly a million marched against the war in Iraq. Was it very middle class? Apparently, judging by those walking alongside us and the posters Boden cardboard. Does that matter? Not really – we should aspire to a society where as many people as possible have the means, education and motivation to participate in public political acts, if that is what moves them. Will our participation have made any difference in the ? Who knows? But in a world increasingly dominated by zero-cost actions such as liking a social media post, there is still something powerful about people physically going to the same place at the same time with the same purpose, to send a message to politicians which they perhaps would not hear clearly otherwise.
Orginal images by Jemima Storey