Marching with the Velcro revolutionaries

Eye witness: Grey power - Pensioners gather to demand an end to the 'unfair' council tax system.
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Indy Politics

A Velcro revolution broke out in the heart of the capital yesterday - the unmistakable indignant crackle of thousands of sensible macs, cagoules, thermal raincoats and pairs of gloves being adjusted to protect frail bodies against the chill January wind blowing across Trafalgar Square.

A Velcro revolution broke out in the heart of the capital yesterday - the unmistakable indignant crackle of thousands of sensible macs, cagoules, thermal raincoats and pairs of gloves being adjusted to protect frail bodies against the chill January wind blowing across Trafalgar Square.

Between the bronze glares of a pair of Nelson's giant lions (the Admiral was looking the other way) thousands of fuming pensioners stood patiently, rocking gently from one foot to the other, while what many of them saw as the most blatant injustice ever to have been foisted upon Britain's impoverished senior citizens was tackled in the time-honoured way: angry words from the podium, applause, boos, cheers and a march past Downing Street.

Yet history was being made here - albeit in a much quieter way than it was 14 years ago, when a protest against another hated tax, the poll tax, blew up into extraordinary scenes of violence. Yesterday, pensioners came together to protest as a distinct social and economic group, with their own concerns and needs, on a specific single issue - to demand that the Government rethinks, or abandons, the present council tax system.

Forecasts for next year's tax levels predict rises of 10 per cent, leaving large numbers of already-struggling pensioners below the poverty line. But yesterday, grey power had arrived, and wasn't in the mood to be ignored.

The protest, organised by the IsItFair anti-council tax campaign, and endorsed by the Royal British Legion and Help the Aged, brought together a cross section of Old Britain, but it also attracted the recently retired children of the 1960s revolution. But it was not strictly accurate to call this grey power: though grey hair abounded, so did ageing heads topped by henna reddy-brown hair, implausible black, and almost believable blonde. And it was far from a silent protest; thewhistle-sellers were weaving their way through the crowd shouting what must be a first among London street-sellers' cries: "A whistle!? A whistle!? Buy a whistle for the old folks?!" Britain's seething over-60s blew as hard as they could.

By 1pm the crowd had swollen to 5,000, and a sea of curiously polite revolutionary placards had risen to block out views of the National Gallery: "Councillors listen to your flock, keep costs down or resign on block"; "Smash the tax"; "Is it fair? Not under Blair"; "Pensioners say, we won't pay". A few dozen police stood around, chatting about the weather.

"The time has come," warned one speaker, Christine Melsom, an IsItFair campaign organiser, "when we make a fuss!" "Hooo-ray!" bellowed the crowd. "The council tax is already unaffordable, and it's going up in April! Is that fair!?" "Nooooh," answered the crowd. "We have done our work, paid in full," she went on, to cheers. "Why should we need to hold out a begging bowl? Our Prime Minister didn't erase poverty, he created it! In the last seven years, council tax has risen 80 per cent, and our pensions have risen by 13 per cent. We have now finally had enough! We're tired of being a punch-bag.

"Our anger beggars all description. We. Will. Pay. No. More!" she ended, amid whistles and hoorays.

"Do you trust local councils?" bellowed another speaker,Rosemary from Winchester. "No!" came the pantomime response. "Do you trust them to be efficient?" "Nooh!" "Do you trust them with your money?" "Nooooh!" "I stand here as a representative of the hard-pressed people of Cumbria," said the next speaker, Steve Atkinson. After a detailed exposition of the alleged shenanigans surrounding his local council - "Oooooh" and "Shame" was supplied by the crowd at the correct points - he again brought protesters to near-frenzy with his climax of: "We have the right to throw this government out!"

"The British people don't like governments reneging on promises. Social inclusion? What social inclusion can you have on a pension of £77.45 a week?" demanded Tony from Essex. "None," came the mass reply.

But what of the rank-and-file marching yesterday? "All these women what get pregnant should paddle their own boats," opined one London woman in her eighties. "Well you're not going to get pregnant are you?" barked a fellow marcher.

"I can manage, I'm lucky, but I'm here for those who can't, and who couldn't come today," said Ralph Humble, 74, a retired businessman from Walton-on-Thames. "I'm not political, but Blair is such a con-artist."

"I've never been on a march before. I've written to the council to say I'm not going to pay. Pretty much everything goes in bills," said Kenneth Haagman, 70, from Sutton.

"It's getting very hard to pay the bills for some people. We shouldn't be having this war in Iraq - presumably that's where the money is going," said Tessa Lytton, 89, from Mill Hill, north London, huddled deep inside a large brown duffle coat. And with that she made off towards the main column of marchers - without perhaps the speed of a revolutionary youth but with all of the determination.

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