I was reporting the events in and around Parliament Square yesterday afternoon, for a French magazine. Having previously attended the 1998 Countryside March and the 2002 Liberty & Livelihood March, I was able to observe the differences in mood.
In 1998 the typical banner read “Please listen to us!”
In 2002 the banners read “The last peaceful protest…”
Yesterday was not a peaceful protest but an act of civil disobedience.
None of the people I interviewed believed that the government would or could deliver a deal. All criticised the leadership of the Countryside Alliance for as one Devonian middle-aged lady put it: “They are protecting their knighthoods.” Minutes later she was part of the first violent attempt to break into the House of Commons car park.
I took a careful look at the people, mostly men who took on the police. One looked like a soccer hooligan, baseball cap, beer gut and the drooling stupidity of English nationalism at its worst: the police didn’t even bother arresting him when he broke through the police cordon.
The others were in their late thirties or forties. They looked more like farm labourers than landowners. They also looked rather more interested in provoking a battle than dialogue. The campaign badge said “Bollocks to Blair”. No pretence at dialogue there.
In all the police acted with almost incredible restraint, police horses were shoved backwards by huntsmen who tried to unbuckle saddles and throw riders. Smoke bombs were thrown by Real C.A. activists, sometimes at police. The Real C.A. activists, who have promised a campaign of direct action against the ban on hunting, were handing out Real C.A. stickers but not wearing them themselves to avoid detection. Some of the demonstration leaders were giving instructions in Welsh to confuse the eavesdropping Special Branch.
There were eight arrests, but most of the violent offenders were allowed to rejoin the crowd. I overheard a reporter interviewing a campaigner and asking why they didn’t go through the normal channels: support the Tories, for instance. The reply indicated that for these protesters at least, they have to create their own opposition.
Shortly before I left I heard a police officer saying to a mother with two young children who were screaming “Blair Out!” and cheering a particularly vigourous charge against the mounted police:
“It’s one thing to be up against Swampy or those Greens, but this just doesn’t feel right!”
He looked as if he’d just realised that his parents could be attacking another part of the human shield of police. Unlike his Parisian police counterparts in 1943, he has the option of refusing to collaborate.