London’s Regent Street this past Saturday afternoon, as the “freedom march” was in full flow, was a neat vignette of the strange political moment we are in.
At the entrances of the air-conditioned stores, anxious attendants formed a cordon to protect the well-to-do shoppers who had accidentally chosen to refresh their summer wardrobe that afternoon. Neatly masked couples dashed between stores, hoping not to be noticed; I spotted one father with a central European accent ushering his boys into the safety of Hackett, only for the kids to break out into chants of “Freedom!” in imitation of the protestors on the march. Other children peered with fascination out through the glass at the noise and the coloured smoke on the street.
The thoroughfare itself was given over entirely to the protestors. For over an hour they ambled past, surely in their tens of thousands — young and old, women and children — tooting their foghorns and vuvuzelas and brandishing their homemade placards. By my count, around 90% of the messages were vaccine and lockdown-related; the Socialist Workers Party and pro-Palestinian groups had done their usual thing of trying to get in on the act, papering the entrance to Oxford Circus tube with professionally printed flyers, but they seemed like a tolerated minority rather than a driving force.
If your goal was to point to logical inconsistencies in the messages, it wouldn’t have been very difficult — in particular, the pockets of Extinction Rebellion protestors (whose central aim is to reduce global travel) seemed blissfully unaware that the anti-lockdown activists they were marching alongside view their movement with deep suspicion, due to its connection to fears about “climate lockdowns” and the link between Net Zero and Zero Covid. (One fascinating trend to watch will be whether the protestor class now shifts decisively against the climate change agenda in the post-lockdown era, as it becomes increasingly associated with Davos and an elite technocratic plan.)
You could also legitimately judge many of the placards and stickers that papered the windows of the shops in the protestors’ wake as paranoid and divorced from the facts — the vaccine programme is ‘mass genocide’, for example; ‘many children will die’. But these terrifying slogans sat within a strikingly good-natured, almost carnival-like atmosphere; many of the signs were more about ‘faith not fear’, and the Glasto-style renditions of “Hey, teachers, leave our kids alone” were positively uplifting. Here was humanity in all its glorious messiness, rejecting a style of government that to them is starting to seem tyrannically sanitised and controlled.
The connection to feelings of Englishness was also striking —all those St George’s flags daubed with ‘FREEDOM’, above a sea of exposed pink flesh in the sunshine — and called to mind the anarchic English spirit famously epitomised by “Rooster” in Jez Butterworth’s hit play Jerusalem. That “deep England” spirit doesn’t get much of an outlet these days outside football and arguably the Brexit campaign, but on the evidence of this march it is alive and well. Even now, it is not well accommodated in the political system.
At the very moment I was watching the protests on Saturday afternoon, Matt Hancock was putting the finishing touches to his resignation statement. Dozens of placards at the march referenced the then Health Secretary (usually swapping out the H in his surname for a W), suggesting that, in the minds of the protestors at least, he was a highly relevant figure in their movement. The victory was theirs: the weekend’s events proved that, for all his didacticism and carefully controlled “comms”, Matt Hancock’s life was just as messy as theirs — just, until recently, less visibly so.
To me, that was the lesson of the Freedom March, if you can see past some of the more outlandish claims about Covid or vaccines: a substantial minority of our population fundamentally objects to totalitarian laws that go against human nature and strip people of their agency. Whatever happens with Covid in the coming months, they’re not going to stop shouting about it.