Five years ago today: Edinburgh expects
Exactly five years ago, about 10am on 2 July, 2005, I was standing in the Meadows in the centre of Edinburgh. The greyish sky had an uncertain look – like it could go either way – that matched my mood. For months we’d been urging people to assemble on this spot on this day for a mass rally that would be the climax of the Make Poverty History campaign, a few days ahead of the G8 summit of world leaders due to take place in Gleneagles. I walked around the field, watching marquees being erected and volunteers arrive in hi-vis vests. We had done our planning. Everything was ready. But would anyone come?
300 miles away the scene was similar in London’s Hyde Park. There the biggest of the Live 8 concerts was about to take place, scheduled to have maximum impact on the G8. Bands were sound checking, catering trucks rolled into place.
Nearby in Whitehall, the G8 leaders’ senior negotiators — the sherpas — were locked in a final meeting trying to reach agreement on a draft communiqué for the leaders to consider at the summit itself. By all accounts, the room was hot and the atmosphere frequently bad-tempered. When the windows were thrown open to lower the temperature, the sounds of the Live 8 rehearsals drifted across the park. Those sherpas, used to quiet obscurity, were suddenly aware that the world was watching and waiting on them.
Back in Edinburgh, I chatted to the city council’s head of events. The council had been fantastic over the months of planning and had become quite proud that the Make Poverty History campaign’s big moment was happening on their patch. I asked him if he thought we would have more people in Edinburgh than Live 8 in London at the same time, where the turnout was already being predicted at 220,000. “Oh yes”, he said, “I think we can do a little better than that, don’t you?” (The Scottish authorities had become a little wound up by Bob Geldof in the preceding weeks and I felt this was a matter of Scots honour).
Five hours later, I was stood on stage in the Meadows looking at a sea of colour and humanity. The clouds had gone and the people had come. I was handed a note with the official police estimate of the attendance and I proudly yelled it out: “as many as a quarter of a million” people. (Subtext: Edinburgh 1. London 0.)
The rest of the afternoon is pretty hazy in my memory. I introduced the live link up to London — the first and only time I am likely to have the chance to stand on stage and say “let’s welcome U2 and Paul McCartney”… All of the angst between Live 8 and Make Poverty History was forgotten as Bono tore into Beautiful Day and Edinburgh danced and sang just like they did in London. I ran into old friends. I talked to journalists. I saw politicians of all parties with their families, marching along with everyone else. I heard Billy Bragg sing Redemption Song with a choir of thousands. And towards the end, when the crowd were fading a little with the sun, I went back on stage and tried to warm them up again. I think I said something like: “Whatever those leaders decide this week, however they choose to respond to the biggest demonstration against global poverty the world has ever seen, whatever you do in your life after today, wherever you go, you will always, always, be able to say three words: I… WAS…” and before I could say it, tens of thousands of voices got there before me and the noise rolled back like a tidal wave: “THERE!” My God, I thought.
The next few days were full of media interviews and stunts, last-minute lobbying of G8 delegations, meetings with campaign partners as we waited for the leaders themselves to arrive. On Wednesday they did, one helicopter after another descending on the Gleneagles Hotel. Early on Thursday morning, 7 July, as the serious talks were due to begin, I drove with colleagues to Gleneagles, picked up my accreditation and walked into the official media centre. The endless banks of desks and phones were a familiar sight from previous G8s, as were the TV monitors positioned at intervals around the room.
But the monitors were not showing the usual summit fare: the pooled footage of leaders arriving, shaking hands, assembling for the group photo and so on. The screens had been switched to rolling news channels and the pictures were of shocked and injured people emerging from tube stations, ambulances, a mangled London bus… I suddenly realised the Gleneagles media centre was silent, and lifeless. It was like every breath of air had been sucked out of that summit in an instant and the world’s attention was instead focused on the work of four suicide bombers and the dozens of lives they claimed in London that morning.
Like everyone else I was horrified. Like many others, I was worried about those closest to me — I knew my wife had been due to take a class of schoolchildren into London on the tube that morning. Thankfully I found out pretty quickly that they were fine — they’d managed to turn back when they heard the news.
And then I thought: what does this mean for the campaign? What are the chances that this awful act will destroy not only the lives of its victims beneath the streets of London, but also the prospects for an agreement that could save the lives of millions of people around the world? How easy will it be for these leaders to switch to an emergency agenda of anti-terrorism measures and for the months of negotiations and campaigning to be worth nothing?
Remarkably, they did not. Tony Blair flew to London to deal with the attacks, and then flew back again. By the end of the day the G8 signed an accord that promised an extra $50 billion in aid for the poorest countries and committed leaders to most of the other recommendations of the Commission for Africa which had reported a few weeks earlier. (Have they delivered it all? That’s another story.)
The next day, the summit came to an end and it was time for campaigners to issue their verdict. This was the moment, late afternoon on Friday 8 July, that I had feared right from the start of the year might be the time when Make Poverty History’s broad coalition would fracture. Keeping everyone on board had never been easy and was always going to be hardest in the hours after an agreement by the G8, under the gaze of a media with the instinct to look for division and highlight it.
I chaired the press conference where campaigners gave their responses to the G8. Kumi Naidoo spoke for the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and said “The people have roared: the G8 have whispered”. NO! Too hard. I turned it over to Bob Geldof who said: “Ten out of ten on debt… Eight out of ten on aid…” NO! Too soft. It was left to Kirsty McNeill of the UK Make Poverty History coalition to get the balance right, and for Bono to add the poetry, talking about the mountain that has just been climbed, only to reveal the higher peaks ahead. It held most of us together, just.
That night, back in Edinburgh, there was exhaustion but weary satisfaction that over the previous week, we had done our best. I joined a few of those involved in the Live 8 side of things for dinner, and then went to find my Make Poverty History coalition friends for a drink. I felt at home in both crowds and was sad that it was only me that was making the journey between the two that night. If the biggest mobilisation against global poverty was two big circles in a great Venn diagram, it was sometimes lonely being part of the little intersection in the middle.