Yesterday was a big day in London. Aside from the boat, goat and stoat races, between 300,000 and 500,000 people from all over the UK, gathered on the Embankment of the River Thames to walk to Hyde Park.
In the middle of the crowd, it was clear that there were as many stories and reasons for walking as there were people. Some waved placards in support of libraries, some carried the banners of their local union chapter. One woman behind me carried a placard requesting that a day centre for people with acute memory loss be spared.
The unifying thread was the strength of feeling about how precious and valued our public services are, and a lack of comprehension as to why it’s not possible to recoup the money tax payers gave to the banks to bail them out, or to claim the full amount of tax the banks and other large companies could be paying into the Treasury but don’t.
Maybe it’s not possible to do it this way, and save libraries, or overnight home nursing for the terminally ill, or day centres for people with Alzheimers, or inner city youth projects, or rural development schemes. I’m not an economist. But it doesn’t seem to me to be rocket science, and so I marched with KM and PJ and thousands of others to raise the question of whether an alternative could possibly be considered by our esteemed government?
It was a great atmosphere all day – lots of bands and chat. When KM said she was hungry, I suggested she ask a socialist for a sandwich, and the lady walking next to me burst out laughing. We popped into Boots instead.
We played protest bingo – first person to spot Communists, a brass band, the Fire Brigades Union, an anarchist, a misspelt banner, a clever play on words, someone dressed as Margaret Thatcher and a vegan, won…
It took us several hours to walk the two and half mile route but it was well worth it to get a sense of the range of feeling. This was the biggest demonstration in London for eight years, since the anti-war demonstration, which was the largest ever in UK history.
And although it was organised by the TUC, it wasn’t really a mass rising of the working class. Middle class professionals are as frustrated about the the way profit seems to be come before principle, as much as public sector workers are faced with the impossible task of making a little money got a lot further, while still trying to advance to meet the ever-growing demands of the modern world.
If the Big Society is asking people to care about public services, then evidence of its existence was out in full force on Saturday.
Whether it makes a difference, I don’t know. But I did feel the pride and weight of history – from the chartists to the unions to the suffragist movement – as I walked.
The news has been dominated by the 300 or so people who took advantage of the demonstration to cause meaningless and ultimately fruitless damage to property and people. They’re clearly angry and passionate about what they believe, but being destructive is ultimately only ever negative. And attacking the police who themselves will be affected by cuts to spending seems more than thoughtless.
I refused to walk for a negative reason. I was not walking because I’m angry, or out of hatred or frustration or because I think I know better. I’m fairly sure I have no clue.
I walked because I’m grateful. I’m grateful we have free healthcare. I’m grateful for schools and their teachers. I’m grateful for community centres and youth provision. I’m grateful for social services who look after the elderly, the beaten, the vulnerable, the disabled, the homeless. I’m grateful that we have a state that has these institutions and others established to care for those in our society who are the weakest and most at risk. To have these things enshrined as a national priority says something about the kind of country we are.
So I walked in gratitude that, for now at least, we still have a country where the weak are protected and aren’t fully at the mercy of the rich and powerful. And I walked in hope, that that will ever be so