The protest march last Saturday was my umpteenth. There was chanting, banner waving and ululation as my wife and I walked slowly through the centre of London from Temple, along the Embankment and up to the Treasury where we stopped for the speeches. We were protesting about the excessive burden borne by women in the current government cuts. It was important for me to be there personally, indeed it was very moving but in reality its influence will be paltry when compared to that of the recent demonstrations in Egypt or Libya, which brought down governments, or which in Paris in 1968 brought about major reforms. Saturday’s march, which involved around two thousand people – mainly young women – will probably change little at that level. Indeed, I imagine none of my marching has ever directly altered government policy but it may just have made ministers think and it has certainly affected me.
Taking part in street demonstrations is part of me, from the Aldermarston (CND) marches in the early sixties to marches over the years against school cuts, butter mountains, the Falklands war, injustice in Palestine, the Iraq invasion, the Bank bail-outs and now, discrimination against women. There have also been marches in support; in favour of joining the Common Market and in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s release. On that occasion a photo of the banner I held up with two of my sons renaming ‘Nelson’s Column’, ‘Mandela’s Column’, reached the nationals.
Those original CND peace marches of the 1960s affected me enormously. I had missed the London Aldemaston march of 1959 but marched into Trafalgar Square with the estimated one hundred thousand in ’60, ’61 and ’62. I would have been 18 when my marching started and the experience changed me forever. I was introduced to the concept of protesting by Liz, my then girlfriend. She was around 16, left wing, fiercely intelligent, clear thinking and assertive, and her way of being and the notion of protesting simply swept me off my feet. A year or so earlier I had arrived in London from a small, dull, not to say reactionary, country town. It was by great good fortune that I fell in with a set of vibrant, political, teenagers. The feeling was electric.
But the peace protests offered more than straight politics. In my marching I found myself in the odd position of sharing the same dream as leading UK figures. Trudging alongside Canon Collins or Bertrand Russell, fortified my self-belief and indicated I was not just an adolescent hothead. It somehow legitimised protesting. And there was more still – seeing Russell when a frail man of 90 sitting on the paving stones in Trafalgar Square and still bothering to try to change society, has remained an inspiration.
And one protest offered more insights still, albeit indirectly. It was 17th March 1968, the day of the notorious anti-Vietnam demonstration in Grosvenor Square. At the time I was a young doctor and on that particular Sunday was on duty. I was working at St George’s Hospital, Hyde Park Corner and with the violence just up the road we had to treat dozens of casualties. Policemen and demonstrators were admitted to hospital and needed equal attention. Being even-handed might have been difficult but on that day the importance of treating patients non-judgementally, no matter what their attitudes or interests, was brought home to me and has never left.
To keep the peace, the ward sister separated the injured, with demonstrators in beds at one end of the ward and policemen at the other. Now that was management!
As I see it, demonstrating allows one to ‘do’ something, to join with others to show a common feeling of care, to be part of a political solidarity. Of course I could always wait till the next election to express a view but marching is immediate, defusing, focused (just one issue at a time) and empowering as it allows individuals to take over the streets and shout together to express a shared opinion.
With the women’s protest on Saturday this tradition was continued. Seeing so many young people, especially young women marching, was encouraging. I found one scene particularly powerful. In amongst the protestors were three women holding hands. The group was made up of a granny (with whom I could easily have marched in the 1960s), her daughter and a granddaughter in her mid teens. This teenager’s determined look took me right back to those early marches.
Photo credit: “1958 Easter March to Aldermaston: Column of marchers” by Roger Mayne