When it comes to demos, size matters. Some of us honed our estimation skills with CND marches. (Bunched up at the front, straggling at the back. Was it legitimate to count kids?) But marching lost its social cachet and I could keep my hand in only by pondering the number of mourners at the funeral of General Booth, of Salvation Army fame. When the head of the cortege was already in Abney Park Cemetery, north London, the tail of the procession hadn't left the Embankment, a good five miles south.
These skills came good again in March 1998, with the first Countryside March. An estimated 250,000 marched to Hyde Park. What brought those record numbers, many travelling from across the UK? The Countryside March was not a single-issue demo. For some, fox-hunting was the focus, for others, the fear of all field sports being banned. Lots were there because farmers were having a tough time, and for others it was a good day out in support of the notion that the government didn't understand the countryside. The single uniting feature was organisation. The Countryside Alliance, well bankrolled and charismatically led, planned and ran the day like a military exercise and the pre-publicity was such that even ministers joined in (though the idea of ministers marching to influence government seems a little fey). The whole thing was a tribute to how superb organisation can get people out for the day - people who normally wouldn't dream of demonstrating, who might have been no more than marginally disgruntled, or who in some cases would have died rather than be seen in each other's company.
We are due another, the "Liberty and Livelihood" march, on 22 September. Since the last, foot and mouth disease has wreaked havoc on the rural economy. But we've also had a general election, when clearly some who voted with their feet against the government used their ballot for a second Labour term. The first march had produced some results. We saw a prime ministerial agriculture summit, the Currie Commission report on the future of agriculture and more money for rural development, though the threatened collapse of the rural economy following foot and mouth was probably a more effective driver.
This march is timed to influence the Hunting Bill, the issue that some marchers explicitly said wasn't their cause. The organisers have laid down a five-point charter stating that anyone who doesn't subscribe to all five principles - and these crucially include the right for people to decide for themselves whether they may hunt - will not be welcome. But will all the disparate groups and individuals who turn up know that? By early this month, 145,000 had registered to attend and 2,200 coaches and 31 charter trains had been booked. Once again, the march is well-funded and organised.
We sentimentalists thought that the day of the mass demo had gone. Seattle and recent May Days are the unacceptable face of protest and were hardly broad-based efforts. At the other end of the spectrum, the ordinary public combined not to march but to shop - for organic food - in the face of genetically modified foods. Purchasing power became protest.
Even in the heyday of CND, marches were much smaller affairs, though punching (metaphorically - it was the peace movement) well above their weight. Might we see them return if the government supports nuclear power as part of its awaited
energy policy review? Will nuclear power be the environmental
issue that gets the public going? Is there an environmental issue out there that has enough salience to get a quarter of a million souls to march in support? Even floating voters claim to care about the environment. When I was chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, I looked longingly at the Countryside March and pondered whether a charismatic environmental issue and excellent organisation might rouse the estimated three million people who pay to be members of environmental NGOs to fill Hyde Park.
I will be there, but I won't be marching. I've taken the organisers at their word and recognised that a peer who voted for a total ban on hunting "won't be welcome". I'll be busy counting as the demonstrators pass, thinking nostalgically of General Booth and Aldermaston. Wondering what really unites the marchers. Will it be legitimate to count dogs?
The writer is chief executive of the Environment Agency, but the views expressed here are entirely personal