More than a million people – drawn from all parts of the kingdom, from Middle England to the housing estates, the shires to the inner cities – marched through London yesterday in protest against a looming war with Iraq. It was the largest political gathering of any kind in British history and an emphatic popular retort to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. This was a million people voting against him with their feet.
Human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger accused Mr Blair of betraying the electorate, asking: "Why listen to President Bush rather than the voices of British people. Why not listen to the voices of reason?" With mile upon mile of the capital's streets filled with the banners and placards of marchers moving 20 abreast towards the rally at Hyde Park, few demurred. When the protests staged yesterday in more than 60 countries are added, this marked the point at which the worldwide protest against a pre-emptive strike on Iraq became a Movement.
At the rally in Hyde Park, which began even as one end of the march had still not even left Blackfriars, the playwright Harold Pinter, Rev Jesse Jackson, former cabinet minister Mo Mowlam and Tony Benn addressed a great throng that stretched as far as the eye could see. Even police estimated at least 750,000 people on the march – organisers put the figure at nearer two million.
As banners such as "No War on Iraq" and "Make Tea, Not War" waved in the cold February air, Harold Pinter told the crowd: "American barbarism will destroy the world." To deafening cheers he said: "It is a country run by a bunch of criminals ... with Tony Blair as a hired Christian thug." Mo Mowlam told them: "Tony Blair and the Government have got themselves into a right corner. Theirs is a position now that if a country has a lot of people killed from poverty and military dictatorship, if that number is smaller than that killed by war then the war is OK. That, to me, is totally illogical."
But the voices of the ordinary Britons on the march were just as impressive, perhaps even more so. David Clark, an aerospace engineer and Conservative Party supporter, one of many who had never been on a march before, said: "I just don't think the evidence is there for them to go ahead with this war." Others used humour. One man, walking with a poodle, carried a placard that read "Stop insulting poodles", and Peter King, professor of social history at University College, Northampton, was dressed in a Tony Blair mask, led on a chain by a Bush lookalike dressed as the Grim Reaper.
The march had begun at two meeting points, Embankment and Gower Street, and was started early by police due to the swelling numbers. When the two rivers of humanity converged in Piccadilly Circus, there were deafening cheers from the thousands who gathered around the statue of Eros. From there it was a long shuffle to Hyde Park where Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, and pop stars Damon Albarn and Ms Dynamite were also among the attractions.
The London rally, which required an estimated 1,500 coaches to bring protesters into the capital, was co-ordinated by the Stop the War Coalition. More than 450 organisations have affiliated themselves to the coalition including Greenpeace, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the SNP. There were more than 4,500 officers on duty.
With Saturday's huge demonstrations around the world, including a police-estimated 25,000 marching in Glasgow, few supporting the cause of peace could resist the conclusion: it may not have been war, but it was magnificent.
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