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Lunch with Gandhi

Photo by Nicola Tipton

 Contemplations on the state of our democracy and the sacrosanctity of protest.

Last Wednesday, on a beautiful Spring morning full of sunshine, birdsong and blue skies painted with clouds shaped like maps and monsters, I set out for my first venture into London for months. Excited, a spring in my step, armed with placards, and full of hope, I drove to the station. Destination Parliament Square. I could once again exercise my sacrosanct, democratic right to protest. Try and stop me!

Not only was it Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ), but parliament was also debating the motion that there should be an investigation into the lobbying of government. This was being proposed in the light of David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill. It was this that had prompted me to go to London at the last minute. The cronyism, sleaze, lies, corruption and general lack of transparency which seem to come to light on a daily basis horrifies me. It leaks out like raw sewage into our waterways polluting the essence of our democracy. The Ministerial Code washed away in a discharge of excrement. Surely if the government has nothing to hide, in order to restore the general public’s trust in the workings of parliament, the cabinet and the PM, then they would vote for this motion of the Opposition. This could be in addition to the inquiry instigated by Johnson with a hand-picked lawyer.

My enthusiasm was only dampened slightly as I learned of the train’s delay because some ‘vehicle’, no doubt truck, had driven into a bridge. It happens frequently near me in spite of massive, canary lettered, LOW BRIDGE signs on the actual bridges. Safely masked on the uncrowded train, I sped towards Euston, watching the world whiz by through the window. Track side strewn with detritus: a vinyl LP, general litter, rusting rails, empty supermarket trolleys, grubby walls ubiquitously covered in graffiti, never ending cargo trains resting in sidings. Amongst the debris, and backdrop of warehouses, fast food outlets, supermarket carparks, grubby houses past their sell by dates, and grey, sullen blocks of flats Spring still bursts through. Dandelions wink in the sun. Forsythia shines. Blackthorn blossoms lacey white whilst cherry trees blush pink in gardens, and buddleias sprout through concrete cracks.

Watford Junction, Bushey, Harrow and Wealdstone …Euston. Mind the step and take all your belongings with you. Victoria Line – Southbound. Green Park: change to Jubilee Line – Westminster. I travelled up the escalators through what always seems like some cavernous, industrial art installation. Sanitising hands as I left the station I blinked in the light. Big Ben still scaffolded, but with shining face and tower picked out in blue and gold. I donned my back placard: THIS GOVERNMENT IS TRYING TO SILENCE PROTEST. I WILL NOT BE GAGGED. The rest could wait until I found a vantage point.

I looked up the road, and, on the corner of the street a small group of people I recognised, carrying flags (European), some sporting berets, (European). All had placards. Fancy bumping into them! Not literally. Distance was maintained but we were all smiles. It was a joy to see friends again… in the flesh! It was exciting to be with SODEM (Stand of Defiance European Movement) again. There was a pretty strong presence of yellow vested police guarding the entrance to Westminster and the front of Parliament Square opposite. Churchill’s statue had some white barricades around it. Compared to last year we were not allowed to protest anywhere near the gates or opposite, until Johnson was firmly ensconced within. What a coward! He doesn’t want to look at us, hear us, or see our placards as he is driven, with police escort, into Parliament.

However, the movement’s founder and hero of many, had set up his banners on the street railings as usual. SELF-SERVING LIARS ARE DESTROYING OUR NATION and CORRUPT TORY GOVERNMENT. LIARS, CHEATS AND CHARLETANS GET THEM OUT NOW. Johnson would have to use tunnel vision to avoid seeing them.  Steve Bray is a persistent thorn in the government’s side. Not to be outdone, he had walked down Bridge Street, beside Westminster, and was bellowing through his megaphone through the railings parallel to the entrance of Parliament; “CORRUPT TORIES OUT!”. Those entering the hallowed corridors of power would have had to be deaf not to have heard him. Oh, it was good to be back!

The PM, duly arrived amidst a fanfare of police sirens … late. The man has such a scant regard for parliamentary protocol. He was whisked through the gates at midday, so he couldn’t have arrived in the chamber until after 12. No wonder he always looks dishevelled! He has brought the prime ministerial position into disrepute. Time passed catching up, laughing, regaling passers-by, confronting Tory politicians walking to parliament, waving flags, holding placards, chatting to the police, dancing and generally having fun in the sun. This is what democracy is all about. Some tooted their appreciation as they drove past. Some jeered. Each to his own. Bystanders took photos, videos and selfies on their phones whilst the professionals zoomed in with their highly technical lenses.

Nicola Tipton and Stephen Bray
Photo by Sylvia Zamperini

Shortly after 1pm, I needed to sit down. Whilst Steve and a couple of others ‘gate-crashed’ the BBC News At 1pm with a loud, persistent soundscape of, ‘’TORIES OUT! TORIES OUT! CORRUPT TORIES OUT!”, I decided to find a quiet spot in the square to have lunch. What better place than sitting on the steps, in the sun, at the foot of Mahatma Gandhi? Of all people he epitomises the effectiveness of peaceful protest. Also, good to be in the company of Nelson Mandela and of course Millicent Fawcett. I would not even have the vote if it had not been for the determination and the sacrifices made by her and all the magnificent suffragettes. They endured so much, and achieved so much … through argument, the support of a few honourable men and protest. They were noisy and made nuisances of themselves!

Not quite in the same league, but before eating my meal deal, purchased at Tesco Express just outside Westminster station, I erected my placards on the steps beside me. In addition to the protest one:

 ALL I WANT IS TRANSPARENCY. IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK?

THIS GOVERNMENT BREAKS PROMISES – NORTHERN IRELAND, BREXIT, NHS.

 I could silently witness to the cause and engage with passers-by. The square was virtually empty: a long line of police opposite, guarding the pavement across from Westminster, a couple of people eating lunch under other statues and on the grass. The odd person walking past taking photographs of those honoured for their contributions in ensuring that we have a democracy and that it is maintained.

As I was silently eating a chicken and mozzarella sandwich, pensively gazing at the Houses of Parliament, pondering as to whether the Conservatives would take any notice of the Opposition’s motion an official Heritage Warden approached in a black, peaked cap with a red band around it. He was patrolling on behalf of the GLA. He was polite and said that he didn’t have a problem with my eating my lunch there. Well, that was gracious of him! That’s exactly what the handful of people scattered about were also doing. Call it sixth sense, I sensed a ‘but’ coming on …

Lo and behold, “But you will have to turn those signs around.”

“Why?”

“Have you been given permission to have them there?”

“No. Didn’t think I needed any. Didn’t matter last year when I ate my lunch under Nelson Mandela.” But then, last year, I could wave my placards and shout by the gates of Westminster, as politicians entered by foot, bicycle or in a car for PMQs.

“You will have to turn them round because this is the property of Westminster and you can’t have signs without prior permission.”

“Let me get this right. You’re telling me I can’t, in Britain today, silently sit here, eating my lunch, next to these signs that are not in anyone’s way, and which have no offensive language on them?”

To be fair, he seemed a tad embarrassed. It was after all ridiculous. I complied, however, not wanting to get into a protracted argument. As he walked away, I began to feel angry. How could this be happening in our society today? What law was I breaking? I wasn’t being a nuisance. I was certainly not being noisy and I would have moved them if anyone wanted to sit down in that space. I also wondered what he would have done if I’d been wearing a political tee-shirt. Told me to take it off … I doubt it. Now, a semi-clad, 63, year-old woman in a public place might well have caused offence and broken some law. I certainly wouldn’t have felt comfortable sitting there in my bra and trousers!

Defiantly, (the man was engrossed on his mobile phone, sitting on a bench virtually out of sight), I turned the placards around and put them in a more conspicuous position on the steps. Two yellow-vested police officers patrolling the square, turned the corner. They’d walked past Millicent Fawcett. Would they make a beeline for me and arrest me for displaying placards while I was eating my lunch? I held my breath. They didn’t take a blind bit of notice; just carried on chatting to each other as they passed. Emboldened, I took my time eating.  Periodically, another pair strolled past… and another. None of them paid me any attention at all. The odd passer-by smiled their support, pretended not to see me or looked at me benignly as if I was mad.

After lunch, I made my way back to the others. On the corner of St. Margaret and Bridge Street, I spoke to a young police officer. We had an amiable chat. He knew nothing of any regulation/law to prevent me doing what I did. It was the first he’d heard of it. They had not been instructed to do anything like it. He too, thought it seemed excessive and not very democratic. Said I’d have to contact WCC to find out more. Steve Bray also told me they couldn’t do that.

What is particularly worrying though is that this happened at all. This incident was relatively trivial but the principles aren’t. Was the man just exercising personal judgement? Did he have any authority to ask me to turn round my signs? It turns out he did not, or at least not according to this document.

I was not doing any of the ‘prohibited activities’ outlined p 6-7. Furthermore, if you look at the map p10, I was sitting in the yellow area which is under the jurisdiction of the GLA.  Turns out I was breaking a by law whereby I was not supposed to display signs. The warden’s job is to inform you and log it but nothing else happens. So my defiance was warranted.

This incident only serves to highlight what a parlous situation we are in regarding our sacrosanct right to peacefully protest. This is why The Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill should not go through as it stands unamended. In the clauses relating to protest the wording is ambiguous and subjective. It is open to abuse particularly the sentences about single protest. It caused A.C Grayling to tweet that this was specifically aimed at one man: Steve Bray.

The Bill, if made law, would politicise the police and put unprecedented power into the hands of the Home Secretary; the like of which is not seen in any Western democracy. It is, in my opinion, important that we make our opposition to this as vocal as possible. This petition is being debated on the 26 April.

Currently, it has 247.5k signatures. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if got to a million or at least 250K by then?

On Wednesday, unsurprisingly, Rachel Reeves’ motion was supported by 262 MPs but opposed by 356 MPs. The Tories triumphed. The investigation into the actions of David Cameron will only be investigated by a lawyer handpicked by Johnson.  More shocking revelations affecting members of the cabinet are surfacing on a daily basis. Even if the letter of the law has not been broken the Nolan principles have been undeniably broken. This government is not transparent and it certainly isn’t acting selflessly with integrity never mind the  rest of the principles. The Ministerial Code is not worth the paper it’s written on and our international standing as a respected democracy is going down the pan.

We should all be shouting about this from the roof tops. Once poor standards are normalised and peaceful protest emasculated, it will be an uphill task to restore standards and our hard fought for democratic rights. Are we really willing to be muzzled and gagged? I fear we are. Blinded by the success of the vaccine, which, incidentally, is not the work of the government but of scientists, the NHS and the volunteers working tirelessly to roll it out, and gripped by the death of Prince Philip the government seems to be able to get away with murder. We may not all be able to do what Steve Bray does, but we can pester MPs, and we can take the few seconds it takes to sign petitions. They can influence public opinion and even the government if enough people get behind them. Look at the Free School Meals issue.

This petition asking for an independent body to adjudicate on compliance with the Ministerial code has been signed by 19.5k people so far. Please consider signing and sharing this too. 

Both petitions are not directly party political. Historically members of all parties have contravened the code and peaceful protest is deemed a human right. The current government seemingly wants to kick democracy into touch. This must not happen. We can vote, even though the system leaves a lot to be desired. If you are concerned about the way this government is going, vote anything except Conservative on 6 May.

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