Mayday in London

Kaspar Hauser, 26th May 2000ce

Imagine going on a visit to London. Where are you going to eat? You decide to go for Parliament Square, where you sit down on a bench to ponder which to choose - fresh fruit from one of the many trees, a sandwich with freshly picked lettuce, tomato and basil, and eggs from the on-site chickens, or one of the meals offered in the kiosk, prepared with food grown here. If it is rainy, you can sit comfortably warm in the greenhouse heated by the sun and waste heat from the kitchen.

This is London at its best - attractive, vibrant, leading the way into a sustainable future. Traffic is reduced to the necessary minimum of buses, coaches and taxis powered by low consuming engines, whose patents have been released after waiting on the shelves of oil companies for over forty years.

Impossible? Stuff of fiction? Not with the necessary political will. Political will follows public demand, we are told. In an age where election attendance seems to be fading with every term, how do you find out what "the people" want? Not without the will to listen to those who are trying to make themselves heard.

It doesn't take a sociologist to realise that for every person who goes out to publicly voice their opinion, there are a number of others who support the issue expressed but don't take to the streets for a number of reasons. So it stands to reason that rather a lot of people sympathise with the intent of the Mayday celebrations on Parliament Square, which was to push for a sustainable society -meaning ecologically sound and socially equitable. Many of the comments made in the media in advance of the day said so. And plenty of people turned up with trowels, seed packets and flower pots on Parliament Square, almost all of us looking forward to a festive day of gardening. I came with cabbage seeds and comfrey cuttings.

I was of course aware that all our efforts would be cleared up almost straight after we were gone - sacrificial planting, so to speak. But I did think we set an inspiring example, and many people I met on the day felt so.

I started to dream of open air - pick-your-own restaurants in the centre of London...

Now, a few empty cans of spray paint and broken panes at McDonald's later, what's different? The issues facing us haven't changed over night. Some people argue it is vandalism to turn a piece of newly laid lawn into a vegetable and flower patch. In the budget of the city, tidying up the square will hardly make a dent. Neither will the reglazing bill bother an American fast food giant much.

The biggest media outcry has been about the graffiti on the Cenotaph and Winston Churchill's statue. I won't argue the case for or against Winston Churchill. As for the Cenotaph: yes it is upsetting that it has been disfigured. Myself and many other people who were out in Westminster on the day agree. However, the spray can was held by one hand. To claim that there was a collective will to summarily snub all those who fought against fascism is either stupid or malicious. In fact I saw several pension-aged men and women who would have dug for victory in the last war amongst the gardening crowd.

If I had been given the task to discredit the Mayday celebrations on Parliament Square, I would have done two things: separate them from their allies and make them look like vandals in the public eye. As it happened, an empty fast food restaurant - an obvious target which had been attacked on numerous previous occasions - was left without any police protection and didn't even have its shutters down! This is not to excuse vandalism by a handful of people in a peaceful crowd counting thousands. It just means it was very predictable. It was also the pretext under which several lines of riot police were moved between the trade union march and the rest of the celebrations, and later shut off all of Trafalgar and Parliament Square.

Two other questions beg to be asked: When English Heritage considered boarding up their statues and monuments, why did the police advise them not to bother? And why did virtually all police disappear from Whitehall for much of the day? Surely the seat of the government is a location worth protecting during such a massive police operation from the onset? And surely such a contingent could have kept an eye on the surrounding monuments?

Cato, the Roman godfather of all lawyers, is famed for having asked the question: Cui bono? Who benefits? In other words, who had an interest in events taking the course they did? Who benefits from the media echo to the events on Monday? Obviously none of the people who came to celebrate an old tradition and show a new way. We now have a lot of explaining to do to our families, friends and colleagues, as to how what we experienced on the day - a crowd of thousands having an enjoyable time creating an inner-city garden in one day - can be so different from what everybody else saw, read or heard through the eyes of the media. Who then benefits? People with an interest in tougher policing. People who want to put a stop to other people's self-expression in public, under the pretext of "the safety of the public". People who want to see the motives behind the celebrations discredited?

In a country where a great majority of the population lives in cities, without access to land of their own, and where the vast majority of food is imported, there is a dire need for a re-thinking of how land is used and distributed, in cities as well as in the countryside (the central issue facing rural Britain, which is at the hub of many of the ones in public debate).

Sustainability means feeding ourselves, and allowing other peoples to feed themselves. Ecological stability means more than clean-shaven lawns, it means diversity and can go hand in hand with a sense of beauty, a pride of place and a content stomach. Social justice means giving everybody access to fresh, healthy food - on our doorstep and on other continents. What better place to set a powerful symbol to achieve this goal than right in the heart of London, with an urban oasis on Parliament Square?