The Wooferendum march was ridiculously British but it was an example of people doing what they can to make the politicians sit up and take notice.
Amid the fun, a reminder of just how serious politics is, as we marched past huge snaking queues outside the Brazilian embassy as Brazilians went to vote and supporters of the Trumpian right-wing nationalist authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro hurled abuse at his opponents above our heads.
Some Wooferendists were there to make very specific points about how Brexit, contrary to the Leave lies targeted at animal lovers during the referendum, will be bad for animal welfare. Others to warn that the pet passport scheme is at risk, and that the return of quarantine beckons. Or to spell out that 90% of vets in abattoirs are from outside the UK, and 50% of veterinary nurses from mainland Europe, many of whom, like EU NHS doctors and nurses, are heading home. Yet more unintended consequences of the Brexit ‘plan’ that never existed.
Others were there simply because, as the crunch time comes, they will take any opportunity to make their voice heard against the madness. I was a bit of both. The vet’s son in me, and owner of the cutest dog in the world (Skye, five months old, Cavalier King Charles) was there for the animal causes. The People’s Vote campaigner in me was there because campaigning is a mindset and if there is any opportunity to get your voice heard by others who might be persuaded to your cause, you take it.
‘What difference can a march like this make?’ asked a Swiss television reporter, providing part of her own answer by being there, one of many foreign journalists drawn to the event in a way they would not have bothered with a similarly-sized march attended by humans alone.
‘I don’t know,’ is the honest answer, though. How can you quantify the impact of protest of any kind? But one thing is sure – no major change of government policy ever came without it.
Part of the purpose of any march is to get media coverage so that someone watching the news, reading their paper or trawling through social media, sees or hears something that makes them think differently. Wooferendum certainly got the media interested. And fair play to the Daily Telegraph for using as its main picture one of a dog peeing on a picture of its highly-paid charlatan columnist, Boris Johnson.
Protest has already played a part in the remarkable journey the People’s Vote campaign has made in the seven short months since it was formally launched. The march in June, attended by more than 100,000 people, was the point at which MPs and media sat up and realised the resistance was real. It was only after that march that we began to get properly heard.
Part of my purpose last Sunday, which I communicated in every one of the dozen or so interviews I did, was to tell people about the next march, on October 20, when the country will be digesting whatever emerges from next week’s Brussels summit at which Theresa May will be hoping to do rather better to secure a deal than she did at the last one in Salzburg.
Having been asked to speak at the Wooferendum rally, I tried to answer the question I get asked everywhere I go at the moment, by people anxious or angry about Brexit and frustrated by the government and parliament’s seeming determination to do something they know will be bad for the country – ‘what can I do?’
The answer is that you do whatever you can do.
Like Daniel Elkan. He is the guy who had the Wooferendum idea, and made it happen. A crazy idea. But brilliant. And it helped show the world that the country is not happy. Not united. Not lying down and accepting something we know is going to be bad.
Like Charlie Mullins, whose ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ poster above his Pimlico Plumbers HQ gets seen by tens of thousands of commuters every day as their trains pull into Waterloo; whose fight with Lambeth council, who want it taken down, has given more publicity to the cause (and to Pimlico Plumbers to be fair) and who told me he is indeed going to take it down for two weeks only to advertise the big march. Then he will be back to ‘Bollocks to Brexit’.
Like the young people in Northern Ireland I spoke to the day before the Wooferendum rally, who have only known peace and have started their own campaign group to fight to preserve it against their DUP elders who sadly are not their betters.
Like my daughter Grace who had an idea for a film – Google ‘Brexit Special starring Richard Wilson’ – and just went and made it.
Like my friend Natascha McElhone, who has made a campaign commercial to promote the march, mixing famous and not so famous faces to urge people to get out there on October 20.
Like the 30 or so famous faces, from Delia Smith to Peter Mandelson, Steve Coogan to Nick Clegg, Olly Alexander to Michael Heseltine, Jamie Carragher to Dan Snow, who each donated £1,200 to help provide free coach transport for people from all over the country.
Closer to this parish, people like Matt Kelly who had the idea of starting this newspaper the day after the referendum, and was thrilled when I told him the comment of a woman on the Wooferendum march who told me: ‘If The New European was a man, I would want to marry him.’
Will the free coach travel have an impact? Don’t know, but it will help boost numbers. Will Charlie Mullins’ poster change anyone’s mind? Don’t know. But it might. Will Victor Meldrew saying ‘I don’t believe it’ when he is asked to pay for a meal that never came, because the chefs didn’t know how to make it, be the difference between getting a People’s Vote and not? Almost certainly not. But it might help. And if it can raise a few laughs amid the Brexit misery, it has served a good purpose anyway.
The target of all of this of course is our MPs, because they are the ones who have to decide whether to back the prime minister’s deal or not. They are the only ones, too, who can decide that there should be a People’s Vote. So they are the ones we have to keep in mind as we keep the pressure piling on.
And to anyone who says you can’t change the politicians’ minds, remember this: Owen Smith was sacked a few months ago from the shadow cabinet for saying something that today is, on a good day, Labour policy. Protest made that happen. Not bowing down to fatalism but keeping on keeping on in the fight for what we believe in.
On the day of the march, the BBC news was leading all day (part illustrated by Wooferendum pictures) on Nicola Sturgeon committing SNP MPs to supporting a People’s Vote if it came to a parliamentary vote. Perhaps the eve of conference poll of her members, showing big support for a People’s Vote, played a part in that. Just as the poll on the eve of the Labour conference showing 86% of Labour members backed a People’s Vote, and 90% would vote to stay in the EU, may have helped bring about the shift at its conference.
That was how Julian Dunkerton answered the question ‘what can I do?’ The Superdry founder gave us a million quid for polling, and it has been a huge asset to the campaign, because we have been able to show media, MPs and the country that across the political spectrum, opinion is changing.
As for the prime minister, it was a win of sorts that she felt the need to attack the People’s Vote in her conference speech, and dismiss it as a ‘politicians’ campaign’. Christ! If only it was!
But it means she is on our territory, and scared of what we stand for. In just seven months look how far we have come. Because the People’s Vote is a campaign of the people by the people for the people. Brexit is a project of the right by the right for the right. Of the Brexit elite by the Brexit elite for the Brexit elite. And the people are finding them out. Just in time.
Whether May gets an agreement or not she and we know there is now no deal available better than what we have. No deal free of economic cost. And no deal yet found that solves the real problems of the Irish border and the threat to the Good Friday Agreement that was one of the greatest political achievements of recent times.
The dogs need to keep barking. The humans needs to keep fighting. And we all need to turn out on October 20. This is the big one, the one where the MPs have to see a body of opinion so large that it cannot be sidelined or silenced. They need to understand that if they do not listen to the people, the people will make sure they pay a price.
I for one will not vote in a future election for any candidate who facilitates the blindfold Brexit fudge that is now the best she can hope for, or who denies the people a vote to accept or reject the most important set of political decisions in my lifetime. And I know from going round the country that I am not alone.
As I said here last week, this is a battle between people doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons against people doing the right thing for the right reasons.
Even for Leavers, the Brexit on offer is so far removed from the Brexit they thought they were getting that far from it being undemocratic to have a People’s Vote on the outcome of the negotiations, it is undemocratic not to. So we have to fight for what is right. And, when we get the People’s Vote, win.