The day Middle England marched with the militants

One family's journey

Cole Moreton
Sunday 16 February 2003 01:00
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Guy Butler had never been on a protest march before in his life. Finance directors from the Surrey broker belt don't do that sort of thing; but yesterday he found himself marching behind a black anarchist flag in the middle of a vast crowd of angry people who were chanting anti-government slogans. It wasn't a march, it was an invasion – central London taken over by a million or more peace-lovers.

Shuffling across Waterloo Bridge he could see the South Bank and the Embankment packed with people. The usual suspects were there – but so were many, many others like himself who had come up from the leafy lanes of suburban England to shout their disapproval of war.

"We have found common cause with a lot of people, I guess," said Guy with a smile. He was surprised to find himself there, driven to march alongside hardened political campaigners by a simple but powerful conviction that it was wrong to invade Iraq.

The 45-year-old talked with the measured tones he might use to present a set of accounts, but his eyes constantly switched from the crowd to his daughters, Ellen and Caragh. The three-year-old twins munched crisps as their double buggy inched forward, pushed by their au pair Sara. Mummy was with them: Erica Butler, 45, a voluntary church worker, had been equally convinced they should come.

The couple left their large, detached house just after 10 in the morning, having loaded the buggy with food, drinks, wipes and a makeshift potty system for the girls. They listened to Tony Blair's speech in the car on the way to the station and were not impressed. Leaving Saddam Hussein in place would be inhumane, said the Prime Minister. "That's not the point, Tony," muttered Guy, who had voted Labour in the past. "The point is bombing and killing tens of thousands of Iraqis. There is no justification for that and no international mandate. We agree Saddam has got to be got rid of – it's just that war is not the way to do that."

Speaking directly to the marchers from the Labour conference platform in Scotland, Mr Blair said he did not wear unpopularity like a badge of honour but it was the price of conviction. "So it's his conviction against all of ours, is it?" said Erica, shaking her head. "He's in a very scary place just now, isn't he? That's where Mrs Thatcher was before the end."

The train was jammed and there were many familiar faces on board. The family took ages to get out of the station at Waterloo, walking behind a huge, stately puppet of George Bush and a placard belonging to a group called Cornish Ravers that said: "Clotted cream not ruptured spleen."

Other groups were still waiting with their banners furled until stragglers arrived. The M1 was a car park, someone said, and the Tube a nightmare. It was a good day, though, for the street traders who were selling whistles on rainbow necklaces and loud horns.

Some people chose to stay away yesterday because they were wary of one or other of the groups who usually dominate such events. But the Socialist Workers, Palestinian solidarity and Islamic campaigners must have been away at the front of the march because there was little sign of them. The ranks of Barbours and ski jackets could have been on the Countryside march.

It took more than an hour to cross the river, plenty of time to read the extraordinary array of banners, from unions, churches, mosques and "house music against war" to one that said, bizarrely, "It's the black worms working under Tony Blair's skin". "I just saw a banner that said, 'Arse!'" said a gothic teenager to her friend. "I told him I agreed with him, absolutely."

Peter Mitchell, a 53-year-old carpenter, had come up from Dorset for the day with his granddaughter. He was absolutely livid at Tony Blair's speech that morning. "He can't just dismiss us like that, surely? Doesn't the man realise that he has been elected by the people? Leadership is one thing but he's there because of us, and public opinion is massively against what he is doing."

Alongside Mr Mitchell was a man in sunglasses on a freezing afternoon, clutching an inflatable banana. Behind us were the usual quota of bongo drummers whose rhythms gave frozen feet something to do. A child's buggy had been decorated to look like a tank; painted on the side was a question: "I am two years old today – will George Bush let me be three?"

The Butlers broke away from the crowds at Lancaster Place; nobody seemed to know which direction they should be marching in, but everybody seemed to be taking their own route through to Hyde Park. "So that's it," said Erica. "Now the march is everywhere." Yesterday afternoon it did seem that way. Many streets had been blocked off to become pedestrian zones and the capital was an eerily quiet and vastly improved place for it, despite the crowds and the helicopters hovering overhead.

The Butlers finally reached Hyde Park in mid-afternoon, cold and weary but moved by the "overwhelming numbers of peaceable people". One of the girls was even asleep in the buggy. There was no sign of the trouble Guy had privately feared, and now he was glad to have made the effort. "Tony Blair is a populist," said Guy. "He seems to want to take people with him. Now he's got to know that he's losing our support. The march will send that message loud and clear."

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