- The Stop the War protest against the war in Iraq in 2003 was claimed to be the UK's biggest peace rally.
- Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, hundreds of people set up tents outside St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011.
- Police banned Extinction Rebellion protests in October 2019. The London High Court ruled the ban unlawful.
London is no stranger to protests over the course of its history, but already a number of protests have rocked the capital since the 21st century began. From hunting rights and war, to climate change and Brexit, many events have inspired Londoners, and others from all over Britain, to flock to the streets in the hundreds of thousands to voice their beliefs to the world. A number of these protests have been part of larger protests happening in cities around the world. Some have drawn protestors from other countries to London. While there have been many other significant protests, the seven listed reflect some of the biggest issues affecting London, and the world, in the 21st century.
7. “Liberty and Livelihood March,” 2002
On September 22, 2002, over 400,000 people took part in a march through central London protesting threats against the rural way of life in Britain. Organized by The Countryside Alliance, demonstrators protested a ban against hunting with dogs in England and Wales. Others were there to protest other rural issues including threats to farming, with slogans such as “Buy British food,” and “Save our farms.” At the time the march claimed to be the largest protest in Britain since the nineteenth century. Opposition leader Iain Duncan Smith was among the participants. Supporters flew in from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the US, and Europe to join the march, and 1,600 extra officers were called in to support the police. Organizers presented Prime Minister Tony Blair with a list of ten demands regarding hunting, farming, and local services.
While the organizers considered the march a great success, the Hunting Act, banning the hunting of wild mammals with dogs in England and Wales, went ahead in 2004.
6. “Stop the War,” 2003
On February 15, 2003, at least 750,000 people took to the streets of London to join in the coordinated worldwide protests opposing the Iraq War. All police leave in London was canceled. As protesters streamed in from 250 cities and towns, police started the march early, concerned over the growing numbers. Two streams marched through central London and converged at Hyde Park for a rally. The protest was jointly organized by the British Stop the War Coalition (STWC), the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and the Muslim Association of Britain. Prime Minister Tony Blair directly addressed the protesters, warning of the consequences if action was not taken against Iraq.
The London protest joined almost 800 cities in sixty countries, up to 30,000,000 people around the world protesting against the Iraq War. Despite the overwhelming turnout, the protesters were not successful in putting a stop to the war. The UK went ahead with the invasion of Iraq. Nevertheless, this protest was claimed to be the largest public protest in Britain and the UK’s “biggest peace rally."
5. Islamist demonstration, 2006
On February 3, 2006, UK-based extremist Islamist groups, al Ghurabaa and The Saviour sect, marched from the London Central Mosque to the Danish Embassy. The 450 protestors were responding to the Jylland-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, surrounding editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad that had been published in the Danish newspaper on September 30, 2005. Demonstrators carried signs with slogans like "Massacre those who insult Islam" and "Europe you will pay, your 9/11 will come". A second protest was held outside the Embassy by the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a more radical Islamist group, with around 3,500 in attendance and using less inflammatory messaging.
The original protesters were condemned by the Muslim Council of Britain spokesman Inayat Bunglawala and Shadow home secretary David Davis for their incitement to violence and murder. Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK’s leader Asghar Bukhari and Labour MP David Winnick pushed for the leaders to be prosecuted. On February 6 Omar Khayam, a demonstrater who had dressed as a suicide bomber, issued a formal apology to families of the July 2005 bombings in London. Following the review of the video footage, four of the protesters were sentenced to jail.
4. G20 London Summit Protests, 2009
Tensions rose in London in the days leading up to the G20 summit on April 2, 2009. Protests started on March 28 when 35,000 people, took part in the “March for Jobs, Justice and Climate."
On April 1, 5000 people following the anti-capitalist organization, G20 Meltdown, protested outside the Bank of England. Pockets of violence broke out, one resulting in the death of bystander Ian Tomlinson. Separate protests took place across the city. The Climate Camp in the City led a couple thousand people in protest outside the European Climate Exchange. Later the STWC, joined by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, The British Muslim Initiative, and the CND, led a few hundred people in a march from the American embassy to Trafalgar square. Professor Chris Knight led an “alternative G20 summit," addressing issues of economic crisis and rising unemployment, and promoting “power to the people”.
The following day a few hundred anti-war protesters led by the STWC, The British Muslim Initiative, CND, and Middle East campaigning groups, gathered outside the Excel Centre. Around 400 people held a vigil outside the Bank of England for Ian Tomlinson.
3. Occupy London, 2011
On October 18, 2011, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, hundreds of people set up tents outside St Paul’s Cathedral. Attempts to occupy the London Stock Exchange days before had failed, but they were officially welcomed by Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of the Cathedral. The protestors issued an official statement on October 16, calling for an overhaul of the current political system, opposing payments to the big banks, and promoting global equality and democracy. The tents remained in front of St Paul’s Cathedral until the protesters were evicted on February 28, 2012, following a court battle with the City of London Corporation.
The protest reflected growing anti-capitalist sentiments among the general public surrounding the economic crisis of 2007-2008, in particular regarding big banks and excessive corporate salaries, and the stagnation of middle and working-class incomes.
2. Extinction Rebellion, 2018-2019
On October 31, 2018, over 1000 people met for the “Declaration of the Rebellion, and proceeded to block the roads outside the Houses of Parliament, marking the beginning of a series of planned mass “civil disobediences” aimed at drawing attention to the climate crisis, organized by Extinction Rebellion.
The group drew particular attention in November when thousands blockaded the five bridges over the River Thames and major roads around the city, delaying rush-hour traffic. They made waves again when they occupied the Scottish parliament in January. In April, they staged eleven days of demonstrations in London starting April 15, blocking roads, occupying Parliament Square, gluing themselves to structures, and climbing on top of trains. By the end, police had made 1,130 arrests.
In October 2019 police banned Extinction Rebellion protests in response to the two week “International Rebellion” movement that resulted in over 1,400 arrests. The group fought the ban, and the London High Court ruled the ban unlawful in November. Extinction rebellion activists remain active in 2020, with support growing around the world.
1. Brexit Protests, 2016-2019
Those that are against Britain leaving the EU have been launching protests since the vote for Brexit in 2016. Thousands attended the first “March for Europe in London in July 2016, and again in September 2016. Six other marches have been held in London since. With the “Let Us Be Heard” march, held on October 19, 2019 and estimated to have had around one million protestors in attendance, protestors demanded that the people be given the final say on deal or no-deal Brexit.
Pro-Brexiters held their own counter-protests during March for Europe rallies. Richard Tice and John Longworth founded Leave Means Leave in July 2016. Alongside Nigel Farage, the group held a rally attended by a couple thousand in Parliament Square on March 29 over the delay on Brexit. Around eleven pro-Brexit groups held their own protests and rallies the same day, including the EU Leaving Party, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, Proud British, and Fishing for Leave. Gerard Batten, leader of and Tommy Robinson held a separate “Make Brexit Happen” rally near Parliament Square.