It may not stop Brexit. But I’m glad I joined the march for a People’s Vote | Ian Jack | Opinion

“March” is the wrong word. It suggests energy, discipline, a band playing a tune by John Philip Sousa, and also a fair distance cover ed; Mao’s Long March went on for 8,000 miles, at least according to Mao, while Gandhi’s Salt March lasted 24 days.

Last Saturday’s march for a People’s Vote, on the other hand, stretched no farther than the mile and a half between Hyde Park Corner and Parliament Square that has become the standard route for the big London street demonstration, and it walked at a pace no brisker than a slouch or a saunter. It was amiable, good-hearted and often humorous, as a large part of it needed to be, having been stood at a standstill in Park Lane long after the published starting time. A fine day had swollen the turnout beyond the police’s expectations; such a big crowd could not be sent forward all at once.

We joined what turned out to be a pre-march march – a vanguard to the vanguard – simply by leaving the pavement and walking into a dense and slow-moving procession just outside the Ritz. Nowhere else in the world, surely, do marches demanding political change penetrate a townscape that is so thoroughly ancien regime.

Turning right into St James’s Street, we passed White’s, the gentlemen’s club named after its 17th-century founder where Prince Charles had his stag party the first time around, where no woman has ever been admitted, other than a cleaner or the queen. Pratt’s club was just across the street; Lock the hatter and Fox’s cigars lay a little farther down; turning left into Pall Mall, we came to Boodle’s club and the wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd; and eventually to slightly more newfangled clubs such as the RAC, the Reform, the Travellers and the Athenaeum. Behind every door, someone was waiting to call you “sir”, and in most cases to bar your admission. We might have been marching through a satire by Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh.

What do we want – privilege! When do we want it – now! But there was no smashing of glass. The most serious altercation happened in Whitehall, where three men stood on a plinth waving banners supporting Donald Trump and Ukip. “You wankers,” a strong voice shouted at them from the crowd.

The speeches in the square were anticlimactic, partly because the roar of the helicopters overhead made them hard to hear. Gary Lineker appeared on the screen; Delia Smith, Sadiq Khan, Caroline Lucas and Sarah Wollaston appeared in life. We decided to walk back to the tube through St James’s Park, and discovered on its fringes streams of demonstrators still walking towards the place we had left, escaping like an overflow from the slow river of protesters that was still moving down Pall Mall. And when we passed the memorial to Captain Scott and came to that procession of which we had once been the head, it seemed amazing to us that it still continued towards the square more than an hour after we had reached it.

The People’s Vote march in London on 20 October.

‘Here was a various crowd brought peaceably together for something other than pleasure.’ The People’s Vote march in London on 20 October. Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Images

The organisers estimated a figure of 670,00 – maybe even 700,000. Now as spectators rather than participants, we watched it pass: an apparently never-ending column that represented more than 1% of the UK population, or roughly the number of British servicemen who died in the first world war. The sight was affecting: here was a various crowd brought peaceably together for something other than pleasure. How many came from London and how many were middle class is impossible to say. Most, probably. The missing were easier to spot. The Trades Union Congress wants to keep Britain in the single market and the customs union, and supports a second referendum on any deal that in its view damages the interests of British workers. But where were the trade union banners, and the car workers from the Midlands and the north, whose future depends on guarantees of frictionless trade? Absent, so far as I could tell.

Why did I march? I’m too self-conscious to be an easy demonstrator. When the whooping and whistling rolls down the crowd, the aural equivalent of a Mexican wave, I’m stirred by it but too diffident to do more than raise my hands above my head and clap. And my marching career – as a participant rather than a journalist – has hardly been distinguished. As a teenager I made a promising start by marching against the American nuclear base in the Holy Loch, but later in the 1960s, when in Glasgow I joined a small demonstration for civil rights in Northern Ireland, I was too faint hearted to bear the levels of sectarian abuse that flew in both directions between protesters and spectators.

What turned me into a more committed marcher was the prospect, tragically realised, of the Iraq war – and here we encounter the first objection to marching: that it achieves nothing. The list of failure is impressive. Despite 60 years of street protests against Britain’s nuclear weapons, we still have them. The march of a million to Hyde Park in 2003 did nothing to dissuade Tony Blair from his military adventure. Marches failed to prevent the foxhunting ban and to reduce or abolish tuition fees. The poll tax prompted a London march attended by 200,000, but it was the rioting that ensued that made the larger mark. The Thatcher regime began to look shaky, and when she went the poll tax went too.

The recent crop of anti-Brexit marches meets a different criticism. As John Harris wrote recently in the Guardian, rather than strolling through central London, remainers need to “be seen pitching up in the places that voted leave, and finally listening”; rather than fronting a campaign with celebrities and has-been politicians, the remain campaign should “find everyday voices with a clear sense of the nitty-gritty calamities that await” and send them into Brexitland to argue the toss. This looks a good idea, and yet there could surely be little worse than sending coachloads of Londoners like me to preach like young Narodniks to the serfs of tsarist Russia.

(Older readers may recall a Guardian experiment during the US presidential campaign of 2004 in which readers emailed the citizens of Clark County, Ohio, to dissuade them from voting for George W Bush. “Each email someone gets from some arrogant Brit telling us why to not vote for George Bush is going to backfire, you stupid, yellow-toothed pansies,” was a typical response.)

Why do I march? To make my dissent visible; because I want to be able to say that at least I did what I could to avert an avoidable catastrophe; to be reassured by the temperament of my fellow marchers that this might still be a good country to live in.

I hesitate to give advice, but in our present circumstance more people should try it.

• Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist

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