There we were in the gold embossed classical elegance of the Egyptian Room of Mansion House, all dressed up in black tie, politely listening to the Chancellor’s swan song – his last Mansion House speech – when the kerfuffle started at the back. Women in red dresses started pouring in from the rear doors with men in dinner jackets and bow ties trying unsuccessfully to block their path. The protestors’ shouts grew louder, and eventually drowned out the Chancellor, who sat down.
There were no police that I could see, and the light touch Mansion House security were clearly overwhelmed by the numbers. Alarmed at what was happening, and presumably fearing the Chancellor might be attacked, many guests also stood up to try and block the surging protestors from actually reaching him. What happened next was the best dressed protest I have seen: women in red ball gowns trying to push past men in black ties. The protestors shouted and shouted, reading out pre-written speeches, a loud hailer warned ‘this is a climate emergency!’, and alarms went off.
On and on it went: the women kept shouting and refused to leave. After a while, the Lord Mayor stood up and very politely said that the women had made their point, so could they now go? But they just carried on. It went on so long the audience were getting visibly fed up and agitated, and started heckling the protestors to go. I sat there literally a couple of metres away thinking how astonishingly restrained it was: surrounded by cameras, both professional TV and smart phones, the men in black blocking the women in red were clearly desperately trying not to use any force.
I did not see Mark Field, who was the other side of a column, so cannot comment. The women were not just protestors but illegal trespassers in the home of the Lord Mayor – but if they refuse to leave, what can be done without force? Really not much. I also thought it was peculiarly British, and not just because of the black ties and ball gowns – I think in many other countries it would have ended in fighting.
Eventually the protestors did dissipate, as they themselves probably got bored of shouting and were no doubt surprised how long it went on, as the men in black – many of whom probably played rugby – formed into rows pushing the women back out of the room. The protest over, the Chancellor stood up, and said that the irony was they were protesting against the government that is leading the world with its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050. The audience, relieved it was all over, erupted in cheers.