Standing beside the three double-decker coaches lined up on Queens Road on the morning of the Peoples’ Vote march in London, the conversation among Cambridge Stays organisers was a rerun of one that took place before the last march in October; “If Cambridge has twice the coach capacity as last time does that mean there’ll be twice as many people at the march?” “In October we were stood still at the start for two hours. I reckon we could be waiting around for much longer this time”, another said optimistically.
As members and their friends and families boarded the coaches, stowed their EU and Union flags and poles, there was an air of hopeful expectation that this march would be on a scale large enough to have real political impact. Shortly after 8.30 the coaches set off from Queens Road to the second rendezvous at Trumpington Park and Ride, where another hundred or so demonstrators boarded the coaches, seen off by Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner.
We arrived in London on a mild and sunny spring day. Our rallying point was the Animals in War Memorial at Hyde Park at 11.00. As Cambridge Stays members congregated, we learned that thousands more protestors from the Cambridge area had made their way to London by train. And we watched other pro-EU groups assemble in position behind their groups’ banners. Shropshire for Europe had a great turnout and were a welcome and encouraging sight.
We moved off just after 11.30 and came to a halt halfway along Park Lane about fifteen minutes later – some way behind the official start point of the march. Over the next hour or so we became aware of many thousands of people joining the march behind our group. To our right thousands walked past us through Hyde Park in the hope of getting to the official rally at Parliament Square to hear the speeches. And to our front and every so often, cheering and whistling could be heard in the distance, gradually becoming louder and louder as it made its way along the column of protestors, and then reached us as people all around joined in, before continuing along Park Lane. It was uplifting and exhilarating.
Nearly three hours after arriving at the back of the demonstration, we started to edge forwards, a few metres at a time, until eventually we began to make progress at a steady shuffle. After we rounded the corner from Park Lane on to Piccadilly at about 3.15 we crested a rise in the road and the true scale of the march became clear. An enormous mass of people filled Piccadilly along its length and width. Hundreds of EU and UK flags and banners flew in the breeze. It was a truly impressive sight and very uplifting to see so many people committed to taking action to pursue a positive future for a Britain they could believe in.
Just as in October, the march was good-natured and almost carnival-like at times. It turns out that anti-Brexit demonstrators also have a sense of humour. Hundreds joined in with the conventional chants; “What do we want… People’s Vote…” but also; “Nigel, Nigel, this is a march!” and, when stationary, “Nigel, Nigel, this is a stand!” Some of the placards made us smile too: “Pulling out never works”, “We’re gonna need a bigger vote” and “Ikea has better cabinets”.
We moved slowly down Piccadilly and saw sound stages with people dancing and entertainers giving impromptu performances by the side of the road. The inscriptions on pro-EU groups’ banners and flags showed they had come from across the country – from Scotland and Cornwall and Wales, and from Yorkshire, the Midlands and the North East. It felt good to be part of a huge nationwide movement of people who want to live in a Britain that is open, tolerant and outward-looking, and which rejects populism, nationalism and demagoguery.
Marching among a million people makes for a slow pace. We didn’t expect to reach Parliament Square, but at the speed we were ‘marching’ we realised we wouldn’t even get to Trafalgar Square. By the time we had walked a couple of hundred metres more to the junction with St. James’, it was 4.15 and time to start heading back to the coaches.
It didn’t matter that we didn’t get to the rally. What mattered was that we had made our voices heard for a cause we care passionately about, and that we had done so in such numbers that the People’s Vote campaign was promoted in the media, and pro-EU sentiment kept alive in UK and EU politicians’ minds and among the wider British public. It was a good day and it felt like we had achieved something worthwhile.
Watch a time-lapse video of about half the march walking down St. James’ Street.