I felt guilty for years after 2003 because I did not join in the protest march against the Iraq War.
It took me a long time to appreciate the absurdity of my belief that had I gone it might not have happened.
It took me longer still, and a lot more marches, to understand what it is that a march actually does.
It was two years after the Iraq marches that I attended my first actual protest, and it was very small scale by comparison. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter planned to close the Music, Chemistry, and Italian departments. Much of the student body disapproved. We went for a desultory march around campus and rallied outside the Great Hall.
When I started working for a trade union, the protests started coming thick and fast. We marched: for the NHS; against austerity; for a fairer society; probably for some other things I can’t remember now. Some were on my doorstep; some meant a train to London; one meant a train to Manchester. I ended up with my picture in the Morning Star (deflating one of those giant balloons in Hyde Park) and the Guardian (one little figure in a Where’s Wally style crowd scene; you had to know which banner to look for).
As protests became just a part of my job, my feelings changed. I was no longer under the impression that I’d change the world by walking down the street, no matter how amusing my placard (and I saw some good ones). There was inevitably a load of hassle beforehand: phoning union branch secretaries, looking up coach operators, ordering stickers and vuvuzelas and other hideous tat. Usually, by the time the actual day rolled round, I just wanted it to be over. Some I probably shouldn’t have attended: in Manchester, I was going down with a cold, and ended up flat on my back in a park woozily watching the clouds. I did miss the 2018 one, having mashed my foot up falling off a narrow gauge train a few weeks earlier.
There was always a lot of standing around, a lot of stopping and starting, and then more standing around when we got to the other end. And yet I inevitably came away from them feeling energised, buoyed up, ready to go back to work on Monday and keep on going.
It was not that my presence, one person more or less in a million-strong crowd, would change the outcome of the issue. It was that it changed my perception of the fight.
I was not the only person who was angry. I was not the only person who cared. It was worth carrying on with this.
Did the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter care what the students thought about his plans to close the Music, Chemistry and Italian departments? Probably not. Did he care after we protested, noisily, against them? Still probably not. Italian was saved by some revised plans by the department itself; Music and Chemistry went. Austerity continues to bite; the NHS wobbles; society seems rather less fair than it did even when I started protesting about things.
But I continue to care.
Protests change things not by sending a message to those in power, but by equipping the rest of us with hope. They say yes, I care, and yes, I’m angry, and then, yes, we care, and yes, we’re angry, and then we keep on going.
Anyway, I’m about to clean my teeth and put a hat on and go and protest against prorogation. If you’re about to do that too, then good luck and stay safe, and maybe I’ll see you there.
And if you want to be or you think you should be but you aren’t, if you can’t because you’re busy, or you can’t do crowds, or you’re looking after the children, or you’re working, or you’re ill, or it isn’t safe for you, or if (like me in 2003) you have no idea where to start, or if it’s just too much, or for any other reason that I haven’t thought of, then know that I understand, that I’ve been there (or, rather, not been there) myself, and I’m protesting for you, too.
Keep on going.