ON A BALMY afternoon in Middle England a group of villagers is drinking tea with the Major - and planning to march on London in support of the Third World.
The old soldier, the young boy, the farmer's wife and their friends will leave the tranquil lanes of south Oxfordshire behind next Sunday and join 50,000 other supporters of the Jubilee 2000 campaign in Trafalgar Square. What they and fellow campaigners want is for rich governments to mark the millennium with a one-off cancellation of the debts that are crippling the world's poorest nations.
As the 9.27am special from Oxford weaves through the Thames Valley it will pick up groups of well-heeled men and women from sleepy stations such as Cholsey and Goring. But instead of waxed jackets they will be wearing white T-shirts bearing the slogan "Cancel the debt", and carrying whistles and placards. By the time they get to London via Reading and Maidenhead there should be several hundred people on board.
"I've never done anything like this before," says Neil Passingham, who works for one of the many computer companies that line the M4. This polite, neatly dressed middle-class man never imagined taking to the streets before now, but he is ready. "I want to be involved in this big event that can change history. It's about justice."
Like Live Aid and Comic Relief before it, the Jubilee 2000 campaign is attracting the support of ordinary, "apolitical" Britons. Thousands of groups from all over the country will descend on Trafalgar Square before forming a long, human chain along the River Thames.
The campaign first came to prominence in May last year when 70,000 people joined hands around the G8 summit in Birmingham - and it will continue to snowball in the next fortnight, with a series of events leading up to the next G8 meeting in Cologne. Yet another human chain is planned there, and a petition containing millions of signatures from 120 countries will be presented to the heads of government.
Britain, France and Canada are thought to be keen on cancelling debt, the Germans and Japanese are warming to the idea, and President Clinton has shown a personal interest, but most leaders are like Tony Blair in waiting for signs of genuine, widespread public support.
Writing off the debt owed directly to Britain by the poorest countries would cost each taxpayer pounds 2 a year, says Jubilee 2000. About half the pounds 100bn it wants to see wiped out is owed to governments, and most of the rest to the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Some of the money borrowed was used to fund corrupt regimes or pay for arms. Other countries which borrowed claim the rate of interest demanded by lenders is so high, that it is crippling.
The United Nations has estimated that if the money spent on keeping up the interest payments was redirected to health and education instead it could save the lives of seven million children.
Jubilee 2000 was started by Christians but it has grown to include 90 organisations, among them Oxfam, the TUC and the British Medical Association. Comic Relief has also joined, and recorded a comedy show at the Brixton Academy last night to be shown on BBC1 on Saturday. There will be a telephone line for viewers to register support but no donations will be required.
The campaign is unusual: it doesn't ask for money, its subject is complex and not as emotive as a refugee crisis, for example - but somehow it attracts the most unlikely supporters. Major Peter Clarke, who runs the South Oxfordshire group, retired from the army five years ago. His last job was helping British arms manufacturers to make contact with buyers. It opened his eyes to Third World reality.
"If Dictator X in corrupt nation Y has got it into one hell of a debt and he either dies or is shifted out of power, then the poor old population picks up the debt," says the Major in a parade ground voice. "It's totally different here. The debts of the father are not passed on to the children. If you are pursued to the bankruptcy courts in this country you may lose your house, but there is always a social safety net. In the Third World you just go hungry and die."
The best houses in his village of Benson sell for more than pounds 250,000. Major Clarke admits that the population of wealthy pensioners and high- powered commuters is not a great breeding ground for social activism. "People have busy jobs in the City. They have a lot of interests. When they come back in the evenings or at weekends a game of tennis and a glass of whisky is about the size of the time they've got. But it's not that they don't want to be involved - we're well supported financially - it's merely that they've got such full lives."
Veronica Keating lives on a farm and also runs her own shop selling handmade dolls' houses for up to pounds 800 a time. A Roman Catholic, she became involved in Jubilee 2000 through her local Cafod support group. "It is precisely because we are comfortable that we have a responsibility to be aware of such poverty," she says. "My children had a good education, we have never had to worry about health care, but these people have got nothing. I hope it isn't guilt. The fact is I'm grateful for what I have got, and this is a small thing you can do in return."
Cathryn White, who manages retirement apartments in the village of Goring, agrees. She does not go to church, and got involved with the campaign only when a friend asked her to help out on a stall for an hour, but she became convinced that this was a just cause. "I think we should all care about people who are less well off. We have taken a lot from them. It must cost us less in the long run to help them help themselves."
Sixteen-year-old Dan Radice lives in the village of Berrick Salome two miles away - "it's got swings, a village hall, some cows and not much else" - and learned about the debts through a book his brother bought him. "My generation is going to inherit these problems, and it's getting worse, not better. It has got to be sorted somehow or it will affect us all. People have got to take global responsibilities these days. We can't pretend we don't know."
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