One of the biggest marches in British history

Put it to the people: Protesters asked for the three R’s: “Revoke, Remain and Reform.” © Getty

They came from all corners of the country, including many EU nationals, amid extraordinary political turmoil and growing calls on Theresa May to resign. But did the march change anything?

It started at Hyde Park, weaving down Piccadilly and Pall Mall. It snaked past Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, through Whitehall and up into Parliament Square.

On Saturday afternoon, London’s most famous streets were packed full of people waving placards and demanding another say on Brexit.

This was the “Put it to the People” march which took place this weekend. Organisers say that one million people turned out to protest Brexit. If true, it was one of the biggest demonstrations in British history.

Protesters had come from all over the country. Ed Sides, 63, had walked all the way to London from Swansea. “If I didn’t do something I felt I would regret it for the rest of my life,” he told The Guardian.

Meanwhile, 11-year-old Lois Vincent-Gobel told The Times that she and her little sister were marching “because Brexit is rubbish.” They held a sign saying “Don’t rob our future.”

Politicians from all of the major parties gave speeches at Parliament Square. “No matter how you voted in the referendum, no matter what political party you support, we can all agree that Brexit has been a complete and utter mess,” London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, told the crowds.

Meanwhile, five million people have signed a petition asking the government to revoke Article 50.

But will anything change? Prime Minister Theresa May has always said no to a “people’s vote” on Brexit. Yesterday the chancellor Philip Hammond said the idea “deserves to be considered”, but the Brexit news machine has already moved on. Today’s headlines focus on May’s future and a tense meeting with Brexiteers at Chequers.

In fact, does protesting do anything at all? In 2003, similar numbers gathered to protest the war in Iraq; it went ahead anyway. In 2011, Occupy protesters wanted to end income inequality; they failed. In 2017, millions of women protested the inauguration of Donald Trump; he is still president.

And yet more people than ever are taking to the streets — whether to stop Brexit in the UK, change gun laws in America, or to demand action on climate change worldwide. Is it worth it?

Rally round

We already know that half of the UK dislikes Brexit. One million marchers — even five million petitioners — is not very surprising. Large protests are easy to organise thanks to social media, but they are ineffective for the same reason. They lack the structure and organisers who can make a real impact.

But how do you measure success? The photos of London’s streets filled with protesters are a clear rebuke to those who argue that Brexit is the “will of the people.” Protesting may not always produce immediate results, but is that the point? Or is it a symbolic way of making your voice heard?

You Decide

  1. Would you ever go to a political protest?
  2. Do protests make any difference to politics?

Activities

  1. As a class, write a list of the pros and cons of holding a second referendum on Brexit. Then discuss: is it the right choice?
  2. Choose a significant protest from the last 100 years — it can be one mentioned in this article or another one that you are interested in. Write a short report which explains what happened, why, and whether you think it was successful.

Some People Say...

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty.”

Henry David Thoreau

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Brexit was due to take place this Friday, on March 29. However, Parliament has twice rejected Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal, putting Britain on a path to no deal. The EU and UK have now agreed to delay the exit date to April 12, or May 22 if Parliament votes for the deal. If the UK asks for a longer extension, it must take part in European parliamentary elections this summer.
What do we not know?
What will happen next. We do not even know if May will be prime minister by the end of the week; yesterday’s newspapers were full of speculation about ministers plotting to replace her with an interim leader. Although it looks unlikely that Parliament will accept the withdrawal deal now, we do not know if there is any option that a majority of MPs can agree on.

Word Watch

One million
According to the “Put It To The People” organisers. However, this number has not been independently verified. Police said that London’s “Stop the War” march, in February 2003, was the biggest in Britain’s history.
Article 50
The clause in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty which explains how a country leaves the European Union. They have two years to negotiate the terms of the exit after “triggering” the clause, which May did on March 29, 2017. The parliamentary petition to revoke Article 50 is the biggest of its kind.
Future
Yesterday there were rumours of a “cabinet coup”: a plot by May’s top ministers to replace her in the coming days. Deputy PM David Lidington and Environment Secretary Michael Gove were suggested replacements, but both denied wanting the job yesterday.
Chequers
The prime minister’s country residence. May held an emergency summit with her ministers and top Tory Brexiteers (such as Boris Johnson) there yesterday.
Failed
According to Oxfam’s latest inequality report, released in January, the world’s richest 26 people own as much wealth as the Earth’s poorest 50%.