Fifty years ago, in the autumn of 1961, demonstrators rallied to the call of the Committee of 100, a militant offshoot of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Demonstrations have been a regular feature of postwar life in Britain – even if most have proved ineffective. Here are five of the most famous:
1. Aldermaston, 1958
Now part of legend, the first CND demonstration was a bit of a damp squib. Instead of marching from Aldermaston to London, these earnest pioneers went the other way, trudging grimly through rain and snow. By Slough, only 300 marchers were left. Organisers drove some “big names” down for the finale, which did not go down well with those who had gone the full 45 miles. “I wish they’d stop telling us how splendid we are,” remarked one woman who had walked all the way.
2. Anti-Vietnam, 1968
Often celebrated as a high point of the 1960s, this huge demonstration outside the US embassy in London now seems vaguely pointless. Harold Wilson was already committed to keeping Britain out of Vietnam. Scenes of demonstrators fighting mounted police horrified middle England and, if anything, the Grosvenor Square ruckus alienated moderate opinion. Even the Observer condemned this “highbrow form of football hooliganism” while The People wrote, “Whatever happens, the horses must not get hurt”.
3. The poll tax, 1990
Contrary to legend, the poll tax riot, which followed a demonstration by 200,000 people in Trafalgar Square, did not bring down Margaret Thatcher. It did, however, expose the anger that her policies had helped to create. The scenes of rioters besieging police vehicles reflected the deep divisions at the end of her 11-year rule. Forty-four policemen were injured, while once again the plight of the horses – 20 of which were hurt – horrified conservative opinion. Did it make a difference? Probably not: John Major, who took over a few months later, would have scrapped the poll tax anyway.
4. The Countryside Alliance, 2002
Since demonstrations tend to be leftwing, this spectacle was something to behold. Enraged by the attempted abolition of foxhunting and what they saw as Tony Blair’s assault on rural values, middle England was on the warpath, with some demonstrators dressed in full hunting regalia. Among 500,000 marchers were Vinnie Jones, Edward Fox and Melvyn Bragg, not to mention Jim Davidson and Anne Robinson. Never had so many Barbour jackets been spotted in one place.
5. Stop the War, 2003
The largest demonstration in British history, attracting 1m people, merely conformed to the rule that most marches tend to be totally unsuccessful. For all the cheering and chanting in the streets of London, Glasgow and Belfast, as well as 60 more cities across the globe, the war went ahead anyway. Even Tony Blair, often accused of being a slave to public opinion, took no notice. Does shouting slogans and waving placards always change the world? On this evidence, the answer is “no”.
Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is ‘State of Emergency’ (Allen Lane £12.99)