Defying SOCPA means never having to freeze your tush off. Oh wait.

So after all that fannying about, I sallied forth to the demonstration in Parliament Square this evening. I spent the day labouring under the misapprehension I was still going to be less than legal, because I hadn't had my special Willy Wonka golden ticket yes-you-may letter from the police in the post. When I discovered from Rachel that a) it's sort of like a driving licence in that you don't have to actually physically have it on you, kind of thing and b) the police, when she phoned to ask after the progress of our permission things, were outraged by our insane interminable loiter last week, I was gratefully disabused. And a bit disappointed, obviously. Robbed of my amusing coda.

The plan was to hold a mass lone demo (as has happened every month since August), completely and humbly legally, from 6 till 7pm, then move a few yards over and have a rip-roaringly non-legal and naughty carol service. And that's what transpired. I hate to say a good time was had by all, but I think it was. It was a good thing to do so although you're supposed to be selfless, I think you're allowed to feel a bit pleased. I have limited experience of demonstrating, and so am irksomely analytical about it, but one of the distinctive things about a demonstration like this is how blooming jolly it is. Jolly and very British - peaceful but not po-faced, a bit daffy without ever losing the sense of enormous importance. This sort of humble gaggle milling about under the looming, gorgeous, other-gold-looks-like-Ferrero-Rocher-wrappers-next-to-this opulence of Parliament. Parliament is an absolutely intimidating place, representing power in one of the most effective, criticism-rebuffing ways you can imagine. You feel very small next to it, and obvious as it is to say, your voice and presence as a defiant citizen in the face of such an impassive and significance-fraught structure feel infinitesimal.

But everyone deals with that overwhelmingness and gets on with it. I love the absurdist convention of these demos - the bonkers notion that you could be arrested, if you didn't have permission, for waving a placard saying 'No more smelly cheese', and of course the silly things themselves perfectly satirising the silliness of the relevant sections of the Serious Organised Annoying Little People Who Probably All Live On Quorn And Are Malnourished And Wrong In The Brain Act. I went for the double-pronged assault of 'ASBOs for apostrophe abuse' (two people asked me if 'ASBOs' shouldn't have an apostrophe; I smote them) and 'Better grammar for placards' (at least no one questioned the spelling of 'grammar'). This was an agonising decision which meant that my favoured campaign, 'Hide Daniel Craig's clothes', had to be sacrificed. Next time, however, as it is a matter of grave import that we strive to bring about a state of perma-nude Bond.

Gathered there all giggly and shivering, we held our placards (and in one spectacular case a pink Christmas tree, decorated grotesquely with laminated images of the casualties of illegal war), circulated and chatted, unwisely went in the road, waved at passing honking cars and mopeds, and were cold. There must be laws and constants about public demonstration, many of them things you kind of don't want to admit to yourself because you're supposed to be being totally selfless and above this sort of thing, like, say

Trundle's Law: Adversity of weather conditions is directly proportional to sneaky sense of righteousness.

Beanamble's Constant: If you demonstrate and no one gets arrested or questioned or stopped or otherwise interfered with, you feel if not a sense of actual failure then certainly a sense of anti-climax.

Fossingberd's Wotnot: Beanamble's Constant is inevitably followed by a sense of horrified guilt over sense of anti-climax. Etc.

I don't know, perhaps that's just me being a git. It sounds pretty beastly when you put it like that - you don't want any martyrs in this, and I know how dedicated people are and how little they let anything like that interfere - but I suppose it's because it's just mind-boggling to break a law or breach it or circumvent it or however you put it, in front of the seat of government, and to have nothing happen at all. When you're actually doing it, it's quietly surreal, and the lack of consequence is equally surreal given everything you ever learnt about right/wrong and legal/illegal. Plus, the whole issue we were protesting was the right to freedom of speech (by extrapolation), and although that only really means the right to be heard, dammit, you want to be listened to. Even if the representatives whose attention you attract are not receptive, you want to be acknowledged, just as you are implictly when you go and vote. Seeing that you're not being acknowledged makes you feel - not personally, but really as an average example of people of your country - neglected. Which in turn makes you angry. I suppose if you protest regularly you get over that, but for a novice like me it makes for an unpleasant aftertaste.

As expected, there were no police - no journalists to speak of either. There was a Liberal MEP, though, which was very something. The only police visible were the ones usually propping up the Parliament gates, looking cold and bored in their fluorescent jackets. Brian Haw had a little passive-aggressive pop through his megaphone at one point, and people laughed nervously, but no one came over and demanded to see papers or anything. It's another layer of surreality - before SOCPA people would protest all the time there and be ignored by politicians, but now we have to apply for permission to be ignored. It's like being not there at all, being negated on some official level. (I went to the rally in Hyde Park in early 2003, remember the excited hollers of a million on the streets and felt so roused, and then so furious and impotent when those million marchers were eaten up in a soundbite and swallowed away like a bad taste. It sticks.) Like hanging around a police station, shouting "ooooo-ooooo" at distant officers who register nothing of your presence. Anyone who's ever given or received the silent treatment from a lover, or opted not to respond to criticism, knows the immensity of the power of silence, and now I suppose the government have figured it out too.

Rachel gave a properly rousing speech, reminded us that "it is the duty of all citizens who give a stuff" to be here, to acknowledge what's going on and challenge it. I watched the cars going past (Parliament Square is a very daunting and almost inaccessible island, you feel like a rabbit dashing across the lanes to get there, and it's another thing that gives you this sense of 'you are not supposed to be here', but I digress), observed the gawping or mildly interested or blank or smiling faces of passing drivers, and wondered how many of them actually know about SOCPA. The form of a small demonstration is pretty standard, and in London people can easily tune it out like they tune out a hundred other elements a day - it seems far enough removed from usual life, aberrant and irrelevant enough to not pay attention to. But this is the sort of issue that attracts people who do give a stuff, but don't often feel the need to actively go and stand in the cold about something - like me. This is something that really affects everyone, however much it may seem to affect only a small pocket of placardy people. So I stood there and hoped that some of the people going past were thinking about what was going on.

At 7 some of us shuffled to the corner for the illicit carol service. It's such a perfect concept - it was held last year and will probably be on next year, and the police are never going to interfere because imagine the front covers if they went in and arrested the bejesus out of a lot of rosy-cheeked warblers in the middle of 'Silent Night'. They dismiss it for this reason, and I had to pause for a moment to get my head around the idea that it was breaking the law, but it is. It's an organised demonstration. I went last year and wrote about it in typically one-foot-out fashion (I know, I annoy myself) - this year it was a smaller gathering, and colder, and altogether less political. There was a gallant, slightly wobbly saxophonist in lieu of missing solo trumpeter, and there was giggling and competitive caterwauling during 'The Ten Days Of Christmas', and swigs of hip flasks and mulled wine (did I mention it was really very bastard cold indeed because if I didn't that would be a grievous error and would imply that we did not suffer for our noble cause). We didn't do 'Little Drummer Boy' because that was a terrible heap of bewildered pa-rum-pum-pums last time. We learn. And we missed out all the juicy Satan stuff from 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen'.

We held a minute's silence as the traffic rushed by oblivious. Nothing does the same thing as silence, as I said - maybe next time we should stand in silence for an hour in the square. One protestor covered her mouth

and there's not really any substitute for that either if you want to declare your outrage that your right to say things is being curtailed. People tune out milling, chatting, politely whooping protestors. If we're being silenced, and being met with silence, maybe silence is the way to strike back. It would certainly signal disgust. (There's always mooning for that, of course, but let's put that on the back burner, or the back of a bus full of drunk rugby players.)

Brian Haw said some brief, typically passionate words, but he was more subdued than I've seen him. He tends to be a human foghorn, but not this evening. Last year we made much out of the fact that we were defying the law - this year Brian did an amusing little "I'm breaking the law right now, la la la" into the megaphone, and Tim gave us a round of applause and we all joined in, but we were quieter about it. The positive spin on this is that we all knew why we were there, in the effing cold and friz, and we simply defied rather than banging on about our defiance - it's no big deal, we could do this every day, and maybe we should. The negative is more along the lines of - we are tired and weary and helpless and we do not know if this is doing any good at all.

I would go with the positive, though, with only the usual little niggly doubts and cynicism around the edges. There will be at the least a steady trickle of people prepared to defy SOCPA in this way for as long as it's in place, and although it's hard to cling onto the belief that it will do good, it's of symbolic importance to keep doing it, to counterbalance what is an insidious, craven and terrible symbolic gesture on the part of the government.

I suppose this now means I'm obliged to go and get frostbite again sometime soon. Thank you, Tony, because of you I will have to buy stupid thermals. Ooh, I could get a onesie, like the ones in old Westerns where the sheriff is rousted out of bed at night by the posse and he comes out in his hat and boots and a onesie with buttons up the middle and his gun. That'll do nicely.

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Anonymous Helen G said...

Good post! (Rachel linked you)

And lovely to meet you, btw...

1:24 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

Top post missus!

See you tonight at the Blogger party; terrible hangover notwithstanding x

4:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice to meet you last night. Hope Rachel can drag you along to another SCOPA protest

6:06 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

Hello missy, how's the deadline?

You've been tagged as part of my keep you blogging camapign x

4:29 pm  
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