The Day TP occupied Westminster Parliamentary Lobby
Monday 18th July 2016 from 4p.m. to 10.15p.m.
by Angie Zelter
Several months earlier Trident Ploughshares had made a plan to go to London and do some kind of nonviolent direct action whenever the date was decided upon for the debate and vote on replacing Trident. In the event we only had a weeks notice but nevertheless 10 of us arrived at our meeting place on the evening of Sunday 17th July 2016. We were Jane, Brian, Gillian, Sheila and Margaret from Scotland, Sue, Sylvia, Michal and Dagmar from England and Angie from Wales. We decided together that we would try to enter Parliament and go to the Lobby area at 3.30p.m. and gather slowly and separately in the lobby and at around 4p.m. when the debate was due to start to go into the center of the Lobby, reveal our t-shirts and banners, make a circle, super-glue our hands together and stay singing songs and speaking out against Trident. We spent the evening practising, learning some songs, writing a press release and working out where we were to stay the next night as most of us would not be able to get home on the Monday evening. We also, as is customary, made contingency plans for all the things that we could think of that might go wrong. It was a long and productive meeting helped considerably by the kind hospitality of the Westminster Quakers.
The next morning, the day of the vote, Monday 18th July, we woke early and breakfasted in a nearby cafe. Sylvia went off to brief Sarah, who had just arrived from Oxford and wanted to join in, making our numbers 11. We all managed to get in, either by saying we were tourists, or were going to a committee meeting or seeing our MPs. Everything went really smoothly and, as planned, at 4 p.m. there we were linked together, showing our banners and messages, singing songs and with Brian taking photos (not allowed in the Lobby but he managed some anyway before being told to stop) and sending off the press release, posting to Facebook and Tweeting.
The police that work inside Parliament asked us to go but we stayed. They asked us when we were leaving and we said we did not know yet. My MP was not in Parliament so his assistant came down to see me and said my MP would be coming back to vote later on, a shame as he was going to vote for replacement! However, I had a good long discussion with the assistant while the others continued to sing around me. Several of the Scottish TPers knew the SNP MPs who passed by from time to time. Some of them talked to their own MPs too. All of the SNP MPs were voting against Trident Replacement and expressed gratitude that we were there. I was especially impressed with several of the younger SNP MPs who were there with young children and who enjoyed our singing – especially ‘Och, Och, there’s a monster in the loch’. There is a children’s room but the MPs were taking it in turns to look after the children while the debates were going on. We certainly do not make it easy for our young MPs with children. We could see on the screens (but not hear) which MPs were giving speeches at any particular time and as anti-Trident MPs were speaking we sang our ‘Stand firm, stand very firm’ song and sang out their names. This felt really good to do – to show our solidarity with this small band of compassionate, moral, MPs who know that threatening mass murder to ‘defend’ ourselves is terribly wrong.
At around 7 p.m. several people had to leave so we said goodbye to Dagmar, Sarah and Sylvia and continued on. The day was incredibly hot and even inside these stone walls the temperature was over 30. One kind policeman brought us water but we were told that if we went to the cafe or to the toilets we would not be allowed back into the lobby so we all stayed. Some took turns sitting on the benches around the lobby hall and we all took short breaks form the singing to speak out against Trident. We only had about 8 different songs but we sang them out and added in a few other contemplative songs too.
At one point Cameron went past and we made sure he heard our complaints about Trident. At another point a small man in a black uniform came up and started saying he was fed up with hearing our voices, and that wherever he went he could hear us and it was unreasonable. I asked who he was and he said ‘I am Black Rod’! He said it was not proportionate that we should be allowed to stay so long, we had protested and should go now. This obviously brought an outcry from many of us that Trident was hardly proportionate! He said that if everyone who had a criticism against anything could come into the lobby and do what we were doing it would be anarchy and that if we lived in London we would know how many protests there were. We replied that this was an indication of an unhappy, divided and dysfunctional democracy and that bringing it into Parliament was necessary as our MPs were not listening, just following a Party Line ………. the discussion was amicable enough but of course we differed in our views and we stayed on. We also managed to speak to the Door Keepers – also in a black uniform with special key belts. The 2 we spoke to were very sympathetic.
We decided to stay until the vote, which was scheduled for 10p.m. and then to listen for the count. We were tired, were getting rather hoarse but somehow the whole atmosphere helped us to feel it was absolutely right for us to be there.
At 10p.m. the bells went for the vote and suddenly the doors in the corridor leading to the House of Commons was opened and we could see right down through to where the MPs were entering to cast their votes. We all gathered and focused our voices through the corridor so we could be heard (we were later told we were) and sang Trident out throughout the vote. It felt very powerful and positive. We were so glad to be there – witnesses showing there was another way.
We heard that the vote was won by a majority of 355 votes. With only 47 Labour MPs voting against Trident renewal not even all the Scottish MPs, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats, Greens and SDLP could change that shameful vote. Theresa May had said she would be willing to authorise a nuclear strike that she knew would kill over 100,000 people.
We left the lobby knowing that we lived in a society willing to continue to threaten mass murder, undermining our humanity and leaving big questions about what we must all now do to change our society and political system into a more caring, compassionate one that deals with root causes of problems rather than bullying, exploitative, fearful activities that undermine our true security.
We left after giving thanks to the helpful police and Sergeant at Arms. We all felt we had done what we could and were glad to have been there at the heart of Westminster.