This was the real ‘Big Society’

March for the Alternative, Hyde Park, 26 March 2011

The ‘big society’ was out in force in London yesterday.  Susie Weldon was among the marchers

by SUSIE WELDON

Vice-Chair, NUJ Bristol Branch


David Cameron talks a fine line about ‘the big society’. Well, the big society was out in force in London yesterday, although he’s unlikely to welcome its message.

Up to half a million people marched through the capital for a rally in Hyde Park in the biggest expression of public anger in nearly a decade.

They came with banners, babies and bands of musicians – from drummers to bagpipe players and guitarists to protest choirs.

But what had been a generally good-natured and peaceful rally against this government’s cuts in public spending was marred by the actions of a minority of extremists who used the cover of the TUC march to create violent mayhem.

Sadly, but inevitably, it was the scenes of smashed windows of the symbols of wealth – the Ritz hotel, banks, a luxury car dealer – as well as damaged police vehicles and bonfires burning late in the night in Trafalgar Square that made the headlines.

It should have been how a message about the government’s spending cuts was delivered so powerfully by hundreds of thousands of people who travelled to London from as far afield as Edinburgh, Aberdeen and the tip of Cornwall.

More than 800 coaches and 10 special trains had been booked to bring people to the capital; 100 of them came from the South-West, including 21 from the wider Bristol area alone.

One man even turned up from France, having travelled on the Eurostar carrying an enormous banner saying ‘Listen to the people’s rage’. Another, civil servant Richard Evans, took a week to walk to London from Cardiff.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said he “bitterly regretted” the violence of a minority of extremists who had used the TUC march as cover for their own interests, but that this should not detract from what the TUC-organised march was about.

‘The political heat is rising on the goverment,’ he told the Guardian newspaper.

It certainly felt that way, to those of us there. The size and scale of the march was breathtaking; four hours after it began at just before midday, people were still leaving the start point on Victoria Embankment.

Many of the marchers said it felt akin to the anti-Iraq War march of 15 February 2003, when a million people marched through the capital.

The NUJ was there, alongside every other union, as well as many ordinary people who had joined the march and the rally in Hyde Park out of concern about the effects of the cuts on public services, jobs and our wider community.

The anger was palpable, but it was good-natured too. I had volunteered to be a TUC steward so, wearing my bright orange XXXL vest – ordered as a job lot, I can only assume, to fit burly members of the Fire Brigades Union, who had been asked to supply many of the stewards – turned up at 9.30 a.m.

Our main task was to keep the march moving and to ensure that the streams of people arriving like a tsunami out of side streets from all directions, joined the end of the column rather than slipping into it halfway.

With a ratio of about one steward to 12,500 people, it soon became clear that this was a hopeless task.

The marchers were overwhelmingly good-natured, however, until the point when – timed, it seemed, to coincide with Labour leader Ed Miliband’s speech at Hyde Park – a loud explosion was heard: a firework going off.

Within seconds the street was full of black-clad anarchists – almost all aged under 25 – hiding beneath hoodies and with scarves wrapped around their lower faces, to shouts of ‘Show your faces, cowards’ from the marchers.

They didn’t care; they already had their agenda planned and their missiles ready, including lightbulbs filled with ammonia.

The police seemed to be taking a softly-softly approach for the first few hours. The officer in charge of policing, Commander Bob Broadhurst, said the TUC had done an excellent job in ensuring that the march was ‘very professional, very well-prepared’. But he said a hardcore element had been intent on making trouble.

Fuelled by alcohol, they continued until late in the night, when sirens were still being heard in central London as the police kettled around 200 to 300 protesters in Trafalgar Square and fires burned in the streets of the capital.

But this morning, what most of use will remember is an excellent day out, in which the real ‘big society’ united against this government, in the words of Ed Miliband, ‘to preserve, protect and defend the best of the services we cherish’.

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