Myself, along with approximately 700,000 others took to the streets of London on the 20th October to protest for a people’s vote, a say on the final Brexit deal. Among the inspiring speeches of unity and the inventive, often hilarious, placards, I couldn’t help but wonder if mass marches actually trigger change. Are they just something to boast about on social media or are we actually making a difference?
We attend marches to exercise our right to peaceful protest in the hope that our numbers force politicians to listen. But how effective have these UK protests actually been in the 21st Century? Indeed, has any change occurred as a result of mass demonstration?
The people’s vote march is the second biggest demonstration in UK history, but the possibility remains that its demands will not be met is very real. The stop the war march in 2003, the UK’s biggest demonstration against government policy, with at least 750,000 attending wasn't enough to stop Britain's involvement in the impending war with Iraq. As just over a month later, Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, won backing from the Commons to send UK forces into Iraq. Organisers put the figure closer to two million people marching against the war, and yet it seemingly made no difference. But this isn't the only march that did not achieve what it set out to do.
The Liberty and Livelihood march in 2002 claimed to be the biggest demonstration in Britain since the 19th Century at the time with 400,000 in attendance. The protest’s main focus was opposition to a ban on hunting with dogs, but other complaints from rural communities were also part of the demonstration. This march was originally hailed as a success by the Countryside Alliance who called for the Government to make a ‘considered response’ to the concerns raised by the demonstration.
But after months of disagreement between pro and anti-hunters, Tony Blair’s Labour government introduced the Hunting Act in 2004. A debate of whether to repeal the ban still continues today, despite the majority of Brits being opposed to the repeal. A survey commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports showed that 85 per cent were in favour of maintaining the ban. Opposition to fox hunting has grown steadily over time as in 2008, just over 70 per cent were opposed, providing an example of social change.
Tens of thousands protested against the increase of tuition fees in 2010, with about 50,000 marching in central London. The demonstration opposed plans to cut university funding and treble the cap on tuition fees in England from £3,290 to £9,000. In the Commons, Business Secretary at the time and now leader of the Liberal Democrats Vince Cable even labelled the Coalition Government's plan to increase fees as being ‘progressive’.
However, the protest later turned violent as a minority of demonstrators broke away and stormed the Conservative Party headquarters, smashing windows and getting onto the roof. Fourteen people were injured, seven of those being police officers and fifty-one people were arrested for a multitude of offences. The majority of demonstrators protested peacefully, but a ‘small minority’ caused havoc and overshadowed the aim of the protest - to oppose plans of raising student fees. The violence was labelled and condemned by student leaders as ‘despicable’.
Despite the effort, the planned increase in fees still went ahead in September 2012. This had lasting consequences for the Liberal Democrats and their leader at the time, Nick Clegg, who became a target for student anger after promising to vote against the rise of fees. Student frustration famously resulted in Clegg’s apology video being edited into a spoof video, making the former leader sing about his party’s U-turn. The former deputy Prime Minister eventually lost his Sheffield Hallam seat in the 2017 snap election, which he’d held since 2005. The defeat was blamed by some on losing his student voters after not being forgiven for his U-turn on tuition fees.
It’s apparent that protests certainly raise discussion and get people of all ages involved in marching for what they believe in. With regard to mass marches in the 21st Century, they haven't been as successful as one would hope, but there's no doubt that they attract media attention. Making a change is what these mass demonstrations have aimed to do - and as for the people's vote, only time will tell.
But one thing remains clear, if we think nothing will change, the lack of that belief will certainly become self-fulfilling.