Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Marching for Europe


On Friday 24 March we packed up the car with sleeping bags, pillows, picnic set, folding stools, esky (coolbox) full of food, overnight bags, laptop and GPS. We were headed for London for the march against Brexit that was to be held in Westminster on Saturday. Much of what was in the car (like the sleeping bags) was just precautionary. 

Taking the national and departmental roads rather than the autoroute we made our way up towards Rouen then on to Calais. Lunch was a picnic by a church in a small village. At Calais we were booked in for the night at the Ibis Budget (along with dozens of members of the border control police force and at least one other couple who were going on the march). We'd arranged to meet this other couple, Marcel and Penny, who live in Brussels and we enjoyed a beer with them before heading for dinner.

The next morning at 7am we left the hotel for the channel tunnel. Unfortunately the GPS took us on some weird route that was clearly wrong. This caused stress and panic but we made it to the train boarding port just in time. Simon was travelling on his new Australian passport with a photocopy of his recently expired British passport, which earned him a dry comment about the change in his appearance between the two.

Looking down Park Lane towards Piccadilly, just before the start of the march.

The tunnel service is excellent and soon we were driving on the left on the M20 motorway through Kent. We were aiming for Swanley train station, which we figured would be a good place to park the car and take the train in to Victoria in central London. I had to pay for the parking using my mobile phone and to my considerable astonishment it worked easily! We bought travel cards for the day just in case we needed to use public transport in London, and arrived in London to have breakfast with Simon's nephew Kippa.

Then we met up with Tim and Gaynor (slight miscommunication there about whether it was to be Starbucks or Pret a Manger, and either way, which one, since there are two of both at Victoria, but we found each other without too much trouble). Other marchers were gathering at the front of Victoria station and apparently Pret was handing out free coffee. Damn -- we'd gone over the road to the pub for our breakfast.

Everyone moved off towards Hyde Park and then started trying to cross over Park Lane to get to the front of the Hilton Hotel, the designated start of the march. We were directed into the underpass, and luckily it didn't take us too long to emerge the other side, although it was slow enough. Some people must have got trapped inside the tunnel of doom for about an hour. My old friend Emile was by then trying to join us, but he had got trapped on the Hyde Park side of Park Lane, but luckily not in the tunnel. The march attracted thousands more people than the police were expected and they delayed the start for an hour and a half while they sorted out the traffic gridlock that was developing. Emile finally made it as arranged to the red phone box in front of the Hilton and we set off. We were about in the middle of the crowd.

One of the best of the placards. Pithy, restrained, self-deprecating, multi-layered wit -- what being British is really all about.
It was a beautiful day and people were good humoured and enjoying themselves. Many bounced around photographing their favourite banners and placards. Lots of us got into conversations with fellow marchers as we went along. Occasionally marchers would dive off to buy takeaway food or coffee along the route. Emile and I enjoyed ourselves catching up (it's about 10 years since we've seen one another) and remarking on all the familiar landmarks. The march went down Piccadilly, St James and Whitehall and we used to work in the area. 

Once at Parliament Square we settled down to listen to the speakers and eat our picnic lunch. Many people had brought flowers and went to deposit them at the front of the square in memory of those killed in the vehicle/knife attack that had occurred just a few days before. I noticed later when we watched video footage of the march that many people had brought daffodils which they were handing out to slightly bemused police as well, as a gesture of respect. It was an extremely well behaved event and I think most of the police enjoyed a nice day out just like we did.

By the time we got to Parliament Square the minutes silence for the dead had already happened and we missed at least the first two speakers. I thought David Lammy, the member of parliament for Tottenham came across well, as he always does. So did a nurse who came from Spain 20 years ago and has worked in the National Health Service, married an English woman and considers England his home. Like us, he is worried that Britain's withdrawal from Europe will mean he is no longer able to work or live where he has put down roots. It's probably not a great risk for white professional tax paying long stayers, but the uncertainty and the lack of any credible reassurances is a big reason why people like he and us have got involved in the Remain in Europe campaign.

Looking up Park Lane with Hyde Park in the background. The red phone booth in front of the Hilton on the right.
We stayed right until the end, then walked back to Victoria station to catch the train back to where the car was parked. We drove from Swanley to Uckfield in East Sussex to stay the night with Simon's cousin Linda, her husband and one of their sons. In the dark, in a left hand drive car, with the GPS wanting to send us the wrong way down a one way street, this proved somewhat more challenging that it needed to be. But by 10.30 pm we were enjoying cheese, biscuits and saucisson together. We didn't get to bed until 2 am and had to leave by 10 am to catch our channel tunnel train but it was lovely to see them.

In the end we were early to the channel tunnel port and got an earlier train. This was great for us because it meant that by driving down to Preuilly on the autoroutes, we got home just before dark after a door to door journey of 10 hours (with a power nap at Alençon). 

We are very glad we went on the march. The police estimate the marchers numbers at 120 000. We don't suppose Brexit will have been stopped by the demonstration, but we feel it was important to personally be there. I was quite struck by how much it felt like individuals counted, just by being there. The bloody minded pursuit of Brexit by the British government following a referendum that in other circumstances would have been too close to call remains a shocking and unjustifiable misuse of power as far as we are concerned. We cannot understand what the government thinks it will gain by withdrawing from Europe, and unfortunately we can see all to clearly what they will lose. We are Europeans by accident and good fortune, and we believe very strongly in a united Europe. It seems unlikely to us that isolating your country is a sensible way of governing or doing the best for your citizens. Some good will come of it though -- many more people are engaged by politics and willing to make their voice heard, rather than blindly ceding power to an unscrupulous cabal whose motives are extremely suspect. Unfortunately, I think the fight will need to continue for years, and us woolly liberals will need to toughen up.

Simon's album of photos from the march can be viewed on his Facebook page.

Finally, I would like to point readers to Arun Kapil's blog, and his recent review of the documentary movie Democracy. His summing up:

Two thoughts. First, Democracy is an excellent antidote to the half-baked, ill-informed Euroscepticism that presently pervades public opinion in the EU’s member states. Second, it makes Brexit that much more incomprehensible. Honestly, why would the Brits want to be left out of the legislative process one sees in the film, which will necessarily affect them whether they remain in the EU or leave? It makes no sense.

4 comments:

  1. It was great to catch up and feel that we'd played a small part. Although our journey was just 100 minutes on the Virgin train from Stafford to Euston! The marchers were from all generations and without exception good natured. I didn't hear anyone moaning about the delayed start, we just waited patiently. The speeches were in the main part very good.
    I've just taken out a budget trial subscription to the New European weekly newspaper.
    The picnic was excellent; a mixture of French and UK bread, cheeses and sausisson washed down with...WATER. We went wrong somewhere not being able to summon up a drop of wine or beer!
    We need to continue to make our voices heard.

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  2. The UK television and press coverage of the event was scant. but perhaps to be expected...

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    1. I think so. I didn't watch/read any so can't comment from personal experience, but the march was not extraordinary in global terms. It was a well-behaved medium sized protest march, so not newsworthy. I think the numbers were as good as they could be given that many people probably figured there was no point since the triggering of Article 50 was coming today no matter what.

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