The organisers of the ‘Rally Against Debt’ on Saturday made a lot of promises. On their website the event was described as ‘a great networking opportunity’. There were to be ‘a fair share of journalists’ so any attendee stood ‘a good chance of getting your face out there’. The rally would give voice to the ‘silent majority’. Comparisons were made with the Tea Party movement. The organisers were pitching to an inexperienced protesting crowd. The website provided tips on how to make a placard, along with a selection of recommended slogans: ‘I understand economics’; ‘Stop reckless politicians spending our money’; ‘Mind the fiscal gap.’ I didn’t fancy getting my face out there, but was curious to see what kind of support a pro-cuts demo could muster.
When I got to Old Palace Yard, a few hundred people (I could have counted them, but estimates of 350 seem about right) were milling around the statue of George V. A few people had followed the advice and made their own placards: ‘Read Ayn Rand’; ‘Debtonate the Deficit.’ Some were a bit raunchy:
A man dressed in the style of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, in a Guy Fawkes mask and jackboots, unfurled a banner. Every now and then someone would try to get a chant going: ‘What do we want? Cuts! When do we want them? Now!’ A truck displaying a digital debt-ticker drove past, raising cheers.
I asked a photographer if he thought he’d need the crash helmet he had with him. ‘You can never tell,’ he said, ‘there might be a counter-demonstration later.’ I asked a man in paprika-red corduroys if he was pleased with the turnout. He was disappointed with the numbers but impressed by the ‘good mix of people’, especially ‘some very pretty girls’. He had a bag from Fortnum & Mason with a jar of marmalade in it. ‘It’ll make a good club for when the anti-cuts people get out of bed.’ A few anti-cuts protesters had their signs (‘Libraries Suck!’) stolen, to loud cheers. The police suggested they go and report the theft at a local police station. They said they might do.
Then there were speeches. The microphone didn’t work at first but it didn’t seem to matter, and the crowd could hear anyway. ‘We are not here to celebrate libraries closing,’ Nigel Farage said, before rolling out a ‘fairly big shopping list of real, good, sensible cuts’, mainly to do with Europe. Martin Durkin, a television director whose documentaries include Britain’s Trillion Pound Horror Story and The Great Global Warming Swindle, said that if we threw Britain’s debt out of a window £50 at a time, it would take 3000 years to defenestrate it. If we piled these notes up, they’d stretch 6000 miles into the sky. Paul Staines, who writes a blog under the pseudonym ‘Guido Fawkes’, brandished his young daughter and told us she was already £17,000 in the red (though that’s nothing compared to what her university tuition fees are going to be).
Toby Young, the Telegraph columnist and champion of free schools, who had urged ‘all those concerned about the financial mess Britain was left in by the last government’ to attend the rally, was conspicuous by his absence. He’d taken his children to an exhibition about pirates at the Museum of London Docklands instead. The museum, as many people pointed out on Twitter, is publicly funded.