Stop Climate Change March, London, 5 December 2009

I went on the Stop Climate Change March last Saturday. Depending on who you believe, so did somewhere between 20,000 and 60,000 other people.

Some interesting events straightaway. As we stand about in from Grosvenor Square, waiting for the off, I reminisce wistfully about the good old days of anti-Vietnam protests. Hoping he will share my nostalgia, I ask a middle-aged policeman whether we might not be allowed to sack the American Embassy. To my pleasant surprise, I am not arrested or (as far as I am aware) photographed. He replies simply, ‘Is it worth it?’ I am tempted to explain in some detail exactly what part the government and people of the United States currently play in our climate problems, but life is too short and the demonstration has started to roll down towards Piccadilly.

Almost immediately, we pass the Canadian High Commission and huge choruses of boos erupt – a mark of our enthusiasm for the Alberta tar sand projects. Yes, as George Monbiot noted the other day in The Guardian, the Canadians are finally the bad guys. Unimaginable in real life, of course, but then the Canadians no longer inhabit real life. Instead, their government has been hijacked by oil interests, while the great majority of real Canadians reject tar sands development as indignantly as they would slaughtering kittens. (I would say ‘baby seals’, but that would be a bit ironic with the Canadians.)

We pass by some of the most salubrious of London’s many salubrious properties, not to mention showrooms full of the fanciest of cars. I wonder what the average carbon footprint is around here. A bit more than the average American or Canadian, I suspect, and wonder exactly why popular protests do not focus on individuals and classes with environmentally obscene lifestyles as well as our cousins across the sea.

On down Piccadilly, skirting Trafalgar Square, and into Whitehall. As we pass Downing Street, I ask a policeman to ask Gordon Brown, our beloved Prime Minster, to come out, as his employers are here and want a word with him. The policeman is polite and at least a little amused, but feels unable to take my request forward. Apparently a delegation of representatives of the 100 or so organisations participating in the march got into No.10 to see Gordon, and no doubt reassuring platitudes were exchanged by all sides.

Which is a pity. Normally I have little confidence in our political class – not least because they still seem to be under the impression that climate change can be dealt with by the usual political wrangling. Nature, alas, does not negotiate, is unbeguiled by even the slickest of slogans and remains unimpressed by style and voter preferences. Yet I have the impression that climate change is just the sort of issue our beleaguered premier might be able to do something with, what with his apparently quite sincere (if recently wholly misplaced) moral enthusiasms.

Or maybe I should not be so easily fooled: for all his recent rhetoric, pretending to be a leader when you know full well no one is following you looks forthright and upstanding but risks little. It’s convenient for an unpopular politician facing the polls to be able to occupy the moral high ground (scarcely a position I expect the Tories to be able to occupy any time soon). I just hope he takes the problem seriously enough that millions will not have to move to a more literal high ground while he and his friends play games with the future of billions.

Prompted by a policeman remarking that if he weren’t on duty he’d join the march himself, I ask a couple of police officers whether they would join in if they weren’t on duty. Both reply that they’d be at home, looking after their children. I haven’t the presence of mind to suggest that that’s exactly what the march is all about, and I would like to know how they would have replied.

Do marches work? No. Or at least, no one could believe that they have much impact on their own, given how little was accomplished by at least twenty times as many people protesting about the war in Iraq. Will Blair ever be put on trial? No, of course not. But if he is, how many of the current crop would be up there with him? And what does that tell us about the likelihood that they will do anything substantial about climate change?

At 3 pm exactly we have the Great Blue Wave. Soon we are in Parliament Square. And straight past Parliament itself! Hang on, what’s the point of marching from one end of London to the other and then doing nothing? No great visible, audible protest? Why on earth not? Is it perhaps that the organisers couldn’t get permission? Yes, that’s right, we need permission to express our opinion to our lords and masters about the way they are neglecting the planet. Which is, I suppose, as conclusive proof as you could want that they are indeed our lords and masters. And we go along with it, of course. Because, no doubt, we are British and middle class and jolly polite.

What do we want?
Modest and reasonable improvement!
When do we want it?
In due course!

Oh well. At least it’s quite interesting, having a ring side seat at the end of the world. I wonder what the average Roman senator felt like in about 450 AD?

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