No Future Ch. 36bybradley_stoke©
Unto the Next Generation
Iris had never participated in a demonstration before in her life. There'd never been anything in the twenty five years of her life that had stirred her up enough to do more than make the most passive protest. Normally, Iris wasn't very sure what she really believed in, especially when the object of protest was somehow remote from her daily life like nuclear weapons (even after the last nuclear war), climate change, education, health provision, trades union rights, and so on. And she'd always been scared off by the threat of public disorder. She didn't want to be in a peaceful demonstration that then became a full-fledged riot. That was bad not only because innocent people got killed and lynched, but also because it was a dangerous place to be.
On the other hand, things had got so bad since the Government of National Unity took power that even Iris could see the point of protesting. And now here she was at Hyde Park gathered together with tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of people in a demonstration whose route would take them to Trafalgar Square via Whitehall and Victoria. Something like this was a forbidding prospect for Iris but at least she was with her friends. More of them had been bothered to come than Iris would have imagined and from all over London. Ember could be relied on, of course, but even Ellie had ventured out. There was Imre—Iris' boyfriend for nearly nine months—who was more concerned about the fate of second or third generation immigrants than the nature of the British constitution.
The circle of Iris' friends and acquaintances was completely swamped in a vast crowd that had congregated in open defiance of the punitive penalties imposed by the State of Emergency. Nonetheless, what could the severely depleted police force possibly do about hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors? And, furthermore, the demonstration was being filmed and recorded by the BBC, Fox News UK, Al Jazeera, CNN and countless other national and international news services.
The ostensible purpose for the demonstration was to protest against the deployment of British forces in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. For a long time now, the devolved governments had been getting progressively disgruntled with central government and they were firmly opposed to the imposition of a State of Emergency. In protest, the Scottish Parliament had voted overwhelmingly for full independence and there were calls for a similar vote to be taken by the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies. The devolved governments stressed that what they wanted was government independent from Westminster and were quite content for King Henry IX to remain their monarch. Most English people, like Iris, didn't really care one way or another whether the other nations in the British Isles remained in the United Kingdom, but they did object to the use of military force to maintain its integrity. The defection to the Scottish government of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and the Scots Guards turned what was meant to be a show of strength by the British government into the first armed battle on British soil for several centuries.
Where did the Government of National Unity stand in all this? The Scots made it clear that they wanted to remain part of the Northern European Union, as did the Welsh and the Northern Irish. The British government was negotiating its exit, while at the same time all other Northern European nations, in particular France and Norway, were objecting to its attempt to impose its will on the Scots and the Welsh. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers had already threatened to pledge allegiance to the Welsh Assembly rather than Westminster even though there'd not yet been a vote for independence. The British government was in crisis yet, instead of stepping back from the brink, it was stubbornly pushing itself over.
The demonstration was well organised even though no one single campaigning body was in sole control. It was marshalled by representatives from organisations that represented anti-war, pro-Northern European Union, pro-green and even religious opinion. There was political representation not just from the Scottish, Welsh and Irish governments, but also from opposition and even ex-coalition parties that objected to how government was dictated from Number Ten rather than by parliament.
It took ages for the Iris' march to actually begin, though the first demonstrators had shuffled off several hours earlier. There was a palpable sense of conspiratorial partying in the whole event that Iris and her friends felt as they browsed stalls selling Green and revolutionary literature. There was an illicit thrill in doing something illegal. And, unlike taking drugs or importing goods cheaply from outside the Northern European Union, it was illegal activity in the full glare of publicity and where there was a very real chance of being found out. All around the marshals in orange outfits were there to remind protestors that this was a peaceful demonstration and that any violence or civil disorder would be pounced on instantly by a government keen to justify its draconian imposition of the State of Emergency. Rumours were passing round that the marchers had been infiltrated by Tories and political parties even further to the right whose members were simply looking for an excuse to create trouble.
The march eventually wound out of Hyde Park and followed a route along the streets of London that would eventually take it past Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament: the two most potent symbols of British government. The march was intended to be seen as a direct challenge to the legitimacy of Ivan Eisenegger's government. Banners were waving and megaphones chanted catchy slogans that called for the British government to leave Scotland to the Scots and Wales to the Welsh.
Iris was rather enjoying herself, although she privately doubted that the demonstration would ever actually achieve anything. Could the British government really be persuaded to give up a hopeless fight and salvage what little face it could in the face of international condemnation? Would the Scots and the others be content with just political independence after so much blood had been spilt? What about the other issues that the protestors were agitating about? The Greens were upset that the government had reneged on its international commitments regarding environmental issues. The trades unions wanted to restore bargaining rights and, for many trades, just the right to free association. There were other protestors with more parochial concerns such as opposition to the closure of primary schools and the need for better flood-defences. There were even those whose main concern was the British government's connivance with the United States concerning Israel's shrill belligerence towards its Arab neighbours.
The march was painfully slow. Every now and then it ground to a total halt for several minutes at a time before it started up again. It was thrilling to march along roads normally congested by London's slow-moving traffic, but less exhilarating to be stuck on the corner of Lower Grosvenor Place for quarter of an hour while helicopters hovered menacingly overhead and the crowd was hemmed in. Who'd expected that claustrophobia would be Iris' chief emotional response in an outdoor event on a sunny but chilly spring day?
The march eventually continued to process along Victoria Street. It followed a road that was probably too narrow for the press of demonstrators until it eventually opened out at Parliament Square. It was here that police security was at its tightest. The Houses of Parliament were defended as usual by impregnable barricades and armed officers. Either side of the road was patrolled by police and even soldiers.
It was difficult to tell when the demonstration changed in character from a cheerful good-natured march where children were lifted up on their parents' shoulders and where Greens in their rubber boots and organically woven clothes were singing rousing songs that must have been sung at demonstrations for well over half a century. But a change happened and it was at around the same time that the section of the crowd that included Iris and her friends was being directed towards Whitehall. The front of the march had probably already arrived at Trafalgar Square where there were to be the usual inspiring speeches and, of course, music provided by rock bands whose opinions were in conflict with the government. Top of the bill was the Wallaces: a Scottish rockabilly band of uncompromising nationalist fervour.
The first sign of approaching trouble that Iris was aware of came from the shriek of police loud-hailers that were calling for order and from a clamour of voices that echoed from further ahead in Whitehall. Then there was the sight of mounted police nervously clopping into the crowd that cautiously parted as they came through. All this might mean anything, of course. The march was due to pass by Downing Street where there was certain to be a lot of anger expressed even though everyone knew that the Prime Minister was rarely in residence these days.
And then there was a press of people coming towards Parliament Square from ahead.
That wasn't what was expected. The march was supposed to head down Whitehall, not come out of it. Iris jumped up and down to catch a glimpse of what was happening. She wasn't a short woman, but all she could see ahead were just other heads bobbing up and down. Then she noticed that some marchers weren't so much marching backwards but were actually running out of Whitehall and hurrying over Westminster Bridge.
Iris' later memories of the Parliament Square Riot were just as confused as the actual events were at the time. The press of the crowd became ever more panicked as a growing number of people worried more about getting away from the crush than they were of continuing the demonstration. Clouds were billowing from Whitehall that Iris later learnt had come from tear gas canisters. The flow of public text messages she was receiving on her mobile phone were becoming increasingly hysterical.
"They're firing on protestors in Trafalgar Square," said Imre. "That's what it says here."
"It's not bullets, though," said Ellie. "They're using water cannon."
"That's not right," said Ember. "That's not fucking right. There are politicians, pop stars, comedians and camera crews there."
"It's bad enough here as it is!" said Iris as she held her mobile phone up in front of her face as she couldn't straighten out her arms to hold it anywhere else.
When the pressure from the crowd relaxed, it was as the demonstration was beginning to fall apart. It didn't happen all at once. The crowd just became progressively less organised. Then it fragmented sufficiently to allow Iris to see what was actually going on.
And what was that?
Parliament Square exactly resembled the television coverage Iris had seen of riots over the last few years, especially the ones that had spilt over into Mayfair. Soldiers and police were waving batons at fleeing protestors. One protestor was battered on the head and chest by a baton as he lay in a foetal crouch on the ground. Smoke was still billowing out of Whitehall and nothing could be seen through the engulfing whiteness other than the faint shadows of memorials and protestors. Escaping along with the smoke were protestors who held scarves, handkerchiefs and other types of cloth up against their mouths. Horses were trotting backwards and forwards with mounted police on their backs as they attempted to disperse the crowd.
It wasn't a one-sided battle, although Iris wondered what value was served to these protestors' cause by their show of defiant aggression. They were a minority of the demonstrators, but they were also the scruffiest and most desperate. And of course it was protests exactly like this that had given the government the excuse to suspend civil liberties. The rioters were throwing stones, bricks and railings at the police and soldiers and aggravated an already dangerous situation. Smoke continued to float over the crowd. Cars were overturned. Projectiles were thrown at the statues of Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell.
This didn't look good.
"Let's get the fuck out of here!" shouted Ellie.
"Was that the sound of gunfire?" asked Imre who stood paralysed in indecision.
"I don't know," said Iris. "I've never heard guns go off before. Where's it coming from? Wherever it is, that's where we're not going."
"I don't know," said Imre. "Parliament I guess."
"This way!" said Ember agitatedly as the crowd dispersed enough for them to see a direction to go. "The police are pushing people towards Millbank."
"Millbank?" said Ellie. "Why the fuck are they doing that?"
"We can't go forward," said Ember. "We can't go backward. We can't go over the bridge. So, I guess that's the only way we can go."
"This is a fucking nightmare!" said Ellie.
"Can we trust the police?" asked Imre. "Are they going to arrest us and put us in cells and interrogate us? Are we going to be tortured?"
"Don't be a fuckwit!" said Ember angrily. "This isn't a police state yet."
There were more sounds of gunfire and a sudden rush of mounted police: this time supported by soldiers wearing riot gear normally worn by police. Three or four helicopters were swooping over Parliament Square and one dropped a huge metal net catching a group of twenty or thirty protestors. Yet more clouds of white smoke flowed out from Whitehall.
"Quick!" screamed Ember. "Get moving. Run!"
Iris could see the wisdom of her friend's words. She and the others ran in the direction that was prepared for them beyond Victoria Tower Gardens. Several times she turned back her head to look at the battlefield behind. Sharpened sticks and empty beer cans were flying over the clouds of smoke. The crackling sound of firearms continued sporadically. The protestors gave off a roaring sound of yells and screams that wasn't nearly as well coordinated as Iris had heard from football crowds.
Then Iris looked ahead to see a column of armoured vehicles slowly roll down Millbank, dividing the panicked crowd as it did so, with armed soldiers just visible through the toughened glass. She was almost at Lambeth Bridge where more vehicles were arriving as they passed by.
"It's like a fucking war," said Ember.
"They did warn us," said Ellie.
"That doesn't make it right though," said Ember.