This is a different kind of walk for me. I step out onto the Holloway Road, which is something I do every day, but because I’m heading for the ‘Britain Needs A Pay Rise’ march everything appears somehow off-centre, coloured by a new and strange feeling that wells up inside of me: my own implied worthiness.
The man sucking strenuously on his cigarette, the woman walking her coiffured poodle, the hipster couple on micro scooters – all of them like alien creatures, going about their normal business, but resolutely not heading to the march, not set in their minds to protest, not brimming with anger. Can’t they see the world is going to shit?
I thought I’d start this journey with my own private march down my own street; that no one need know what I was doing, that nothing would strike me as out of place, but I could not contain my outrage at life going on as usual.
It takes me maybe half a mile to pull myself together, to realise that ‘life going on’ is precisely the point; is the very reason why this march is taking place; and that what I was experiencing was the simulacrum of worthiness, brought about by this new experience of overcoming my own lassitude and actually consenting to go and bear witness to the justifiable outrage of others.
Reality hits when I see a police helicopter heading towards central London, like some dismal insect pinned against the sky. The phrase ‘state surveillance’ flashes through my mind as I head beneath ground to catch the tube to Piccadilly Circus, but I think no more of it once out of sight.
This same helicopter is there buzzing noisily above me when I emerge 15 minutes later into a seething admixture of tourists and trade-unionists. I skirt around the edge of the crowd and a kind policeman lets me through the barrier to join the march proper.
There is more space than I’d expected; the marchers erupt into sporadic song, carry regulation banners, placards and wave flags that occasionally brush against my face, which is a kind of polymorphously perverse way of saying that I feel like I belong.
By the time we reach Hyde Park, the rally has already started and so I head instinctively for the main stage, a kind of Pavlovian response to hearing human voices fed through a PA, vestigial remnant of my festival-going days. I want to see the faces from which the voices emerge, and have those faces affirm the crowd’s indignation.
A succession of trade union leaders and spokespeople take to the stage and talk about the importance of collective bargaining, of the right to withhold labour, of the spirit of comradeship that is essential to any meaningful mass mobilisation of people. They rail against the policies of a government that they say has sold its people down a particularly treacherous river, where the poor, disabled and young get washed away like pieces of forgotten flotsam. The key message here is that workers of every kind require a living wage – and it’s difficult to argue with that?
But there is blistering, broiling, belligerent anger too, which is best encapsulated by Len McClusky, General Secretary of Unite, who delivers a powerful denunciation of the minority elites and corporate cabals that control the wealth of this country, during which he screams: “Pay your taxes you greedy bastards!”
And later he is followed by Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, who empties his spleen into a diatribe condemning those who profit from the massive transference of wealth from rich to poor, who offer up corporate subsidies of some 85bn a year, who squirrel away the nation’s wealth into offshore tax havens. The claim that there are not enough resources to provide effective public services, decent wages, a solid welfare system, he wails, is simply a lie.
But perhaps the most potent contribution comes from 91-year-old campaigner Harry Smith, who explains how he began his “long march for better wages for British workers in 1926,” when his father, a Barnsley miner, “lifted me on his shoulders and took me to the picket lines of the General Strike.” Harry holds the crowd captivated, a living vision of our history and one that demands we have the imagination to step outside the temporal confines of our own time and picture what came before and what will come after. He condemns Cameron’s coalition government, which he says has “robbed the vulnerable of their benefits to enrich the mighty” and “snatched from the workers of this country the right to a dignified wage.” His speech is a masterclass in dignified indignation.
I find myself dreading the end of this litany of talkers, for I’m aware that when the talking stops, when the focal point of the crowd’s energy is removed, then it’s over to them, to us, to me – and I’m lost as to what to do about any of it. I suppose the biggest steer comes from one of the final speakers, Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS, who advocates more “militant action”, by which he means more direct activities such as the Focus E15 Mothers movement, the occupation of Parliament Square, and ultimately the threat of a General Strike. It’s this last point that really hits home; the air feels alive with the appetite for it. This, one suspects, is perhaps the only thing that will force the government’s hand, but in which direction it is impossible to say.
And so I walk away, back across the park, as the people head back to their coaches, back to their homes around the country, and littered about me are all the discarded placards, stuffed into bins or placed in neat piles under oak trees, and I refuse a man that offers me a copy of Workers Hammer and wonder if I am a bad person for doing so, but I can’t believe that traditional conceptions of communism or socialism are any kind of answer. And I feel somehow bewildered and deflated.
As I come to Hyde Park corner the marchers disperse and merge with the general mass of sightseers and shoppers and I can’t tell who are the ‘comrades’ any more. This feels like stepping back into a vast machine of which we are all part, radicals or no, and it feels so much bigger than any of us, that I wonder if anything can be done to truly change it. Daily it churns, feeding off our complacency and fear, offering up the production-line of trinkets that keep us distracted, while the coffers of the rich tumefy. It is this into which we are now so intimately wired, such that separation becomes increasingly difficult and will demand a fortitude like never before. The more I consider it, the more I think of it in religious terms – we must apostatise ourselves before this gewgaw god and reject the dogma of cupidity his disciples preach.
I decide to head for Parliament Square to join the Occupy London gathering. Ahead of me I can hear the drums of a small group marching down past Buckingham Palace, followed by a phalanx of police vans and day-glo foot soldiers. After a short time I catch up with them and join the procession, glad to be part of the tribe once more. When we come to the Square itself there are more police waiting. They make a half-hearted attempt to stop the marchers getting onto the muddy patch of grass, but to no avail, and soon there is a ring of perhaps 150 people congregating around a portable PA and two vertical bamboo and cheesecloth banners that read PEOPLE and DEMOCRACY. The helicopter is here too.
I don’t know who the man speaking is; he is youngish, perhaps mid-thirties, with brown tousled hair and a light beard, and would have looked perfectly at home in 1960s Haight-Ashbury. He knows his stuff and talks percentages, injustices, prerogatives, keeping the audience in rapt attention. He introduces the Labour MP John McDonnell who delivers an excoriating invective against the current Westminster system, which he characterises as nothing less than a kleptocracy, a corruption of representative government that is used to effectively steal from the people, which results in a massive concentration of wealth and power at the top and an evisceration of those at the bottom. He also mentions the bureaucratisation of the unions, which is surely a problem for anyone who attended the march earlier, where there was still a great focus on the Labour Party, and which explains the difference between some of the more concilliatory speeches and those with a harder, more militant edge. McDonnell invokes Serwotka in a call (at least potentially) for a General Strike, to which the crowd responds with glee. Again this seems like it might be on the horizon if the current situation continues, which it almost surely will.
More speakers follow, including Donnachadh McCarthy, former Deputy Chair of the Liberal Democrats (note the ‘former’) and Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party. McCarthy, who wrote the book The Prostitute State, is as unequivocal as you’d expect; to him Cameron, Clegg and Miliband are little more than “rent boys”, puppet leaders at the perpetual behest of corporate power and the financial elites. He talks not just of the 1%, but of the 0.001% – that just 85 people own as much wealth as half the population of the world. “Trickle down,” he tells the crowd, “is the biggest lie we’ve ever been told.” His demands are just as unequivocal: close offshore tax havens; ban lobbying in government; cleanse education of corporate interests; and limit the concentration of media ownership. Bennett, meanwhile, demands a “People’s Constitutional Convention” in order to draw up a proper democratic constitution for the UK.
I notice that Russell Brand is here, which produces a strange effect, as several people rush over to have their picture taken with him. I wonder if this is to do with his celebrity, or whether it’s because he is fast becoming a kind of figurehead for the movement. I hope it’s the latter. It surely must be the duty of anyone taking part in this kind of activism to question their relationship to fame, its conceptual basis even, which is as an epiphenomenon of the system, and a means of distraction, as much as anything else they seek to condemn.
Brand speaks and is as charming and funny as you’d expect; he gently nods in the direction of the assertion above when he points to the fact that he “wasn’t born a famous person” but is “from a place called Grays in Essex”. But he is as serious and angry as any of the political speakers, and it increasingly feels like he is living out his personal awakening in the public eye, so that some of us might do the same. This makes him a focal point for attacks, but he seems prepared to handle it, and is well equipped to do so, with the bulwarks of notoriety, personal liquidity and a quick wit to help him shoulder the burden.
As the structure granted by the series of speakers falls away there are discussions about next steps, including logistics, how to manage the police, and talk of an assembly to debate solutions. Some people take the microphone and sing songs, others talk about personal experience, but increasingly people just mill about, while lo-fi satellite camera crews orbit the main group interviewing people about the injustices of the corrupted system. These are the confident ones with urgent points to make. The elephant in the room is the British character; the sense that overcoming our innate deference, to take to the hustings and declaim each alone, is the truly difficult thing to do. Or perhaps this is just me; just what I’m feeling. I can’t imagine being able to hold the concentration of a group of people like this, of being able to talk lucidly and with cogency and passion about any of this, despite my awareness of the issues. And I suppose most are like me. Perhaps this is just another struggle that we will have to fight.
I skirt around the edges and go and sit near the police to gather my thoughts. The organisers are asking us to stay but I am already thinking about writing this and whether what I write will in some small way represent a contribution. At the moment this is all I have, this and a willingness to learn more about the intricacies of the debate and of what direct activism might entail. Still, I worry about personal apathy, about procrastination, home comforts, nihilism – all the tendencies that have kept me quiet for so long. Just as I worry about misunderstanding, misreading, misleading agendas, and about propaganda and counter-propaganda, such that putting trust in anyone is hard and finding truth in the clash of narratives even harder.
Eventually, I leave with a somewhat heavy heart and walk up Whitehall, past fortress Downing Street, past the people having their photos taken with jaunty police officers and the Household Cavalry, up into the oblivious throngs of people in Trafalgar Square and onto St Martin’s Place. And among the forest of faces, I see the granite visage of Edith Cavell and think that only her standard of commitment is really enough, and I seriously doubt whether I possess that, and so I tramp on up toward Leicester Square and catch the tube home to watch Match of the Day and start writing this, my meagre attempt to document what many hope will be an important day in this struggle for a fairer future.