G8 10 years on: March ‘could have spelt disaster’

Protestors march during the Make Poverty History protest march on  July 2, 2005 in Edinburgh. Picture: Getty
Protestors march during the Make Poverty History protest march on July 2, 2005 in Edinburgh. Picture: Getty
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Ten years ago today, the eyes of the world were on Edinburgh as world leaders prepared to meet for the G8 summit at Gleneagles.

What was to be the biggest demonstration ever seen in Scotland would soon be winding its way through the city in a celebration of people power aimed at turning the tide in the battle against global poverty.

200,000 people dressed in white in the Meadow Park to "Make Poverty History". Picture: AP

200,000 people dressed in white in the Meadow Park to "Make Poverty History". Picture: AP

But the weeks before that Saturday were tense ones for city leaders, who feared the ­global gathering would spiral out of control.

“We just wanted to make sure there wasn’t any loss of life,” says then-council leader Donald Anderson. The city had been bracing itself for protests for a year, with police, council officers and UK Government civil servants liaising to ensure that the conference and ­inevitable protests were well-managed.

“For all intents and purposes, it was the Edinburgh G8 summit, because anyone who had a point of view or something to protest wasn’t going to make it anywhere near Gleneagles,” says Mr Anderson.

“Once the Make Poverty History campaign kicked off, and both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer began to lobby on issues like debt relief and aid, we knew this was going to be a really, really big event for Edinburgh and Scotland – and indeed, the world.”

Then, a month and a half before world leaders gathered, all those preparations were turned on their head.

“About six weeks out, Bob Geldof said, let’s get a million people up to Edinburgh, and why don’t we have a concert in Edinburgh as well? That was a shock to the system.”

Geldof, who had embraced the Make Poverty History campaign and was organising a series of global Live8 concerts, was instantly rebuked by senior officers at Lothian and Borders Police, but the city’s political leaders had to tread a fine line between discouraging excessive numbers and supporting a popular cause that everyone wanted to succeed, while at the same time presenting Edinburgh as an attractive destination.

“There were all sorts of other emotions running through my head, because we all supported the Make Poverty History agenda,” says Mr Anderson. “Even the police in the meetings, though they wouldn’t say anything publicly, were all supporting it.”

Without direct contact with Geldof, the council leader was forced to wage a media campaign in an effort to persuade the pop star, who was riding the crest of a wave as the Live8 message took off, to tone down his language.

“In a million different ways over that week, I was asked, can Edinburgh take a million people, and the blunt truth at the time was, no we couldn’t. We had to find a way to prevent that from happening, but do it in a way that didn’t cause offence to Bob Geldof and the other organisers, and didn’t cause any damage to the reputation of the city as a welcoming tourist destination.

Eventually, Mr Anderson settled on a form of words to walk that tightrope, telling journalists: “We all want to protect and save lives in Africa, but nobody wants to put them at risk here in Edinburgh. By really robustly ramming that message home through just about every form of media, we did get that message through to Bob Geldof.”

While the threat of a million people descending on the Capital was lifted, there was still a huge amount of additional preparation needed. A massive campsite was set up at Hunter’s Hall Park in Craigmillar to accommodate the roughly 50,000 people who came from far and wide to join the Make Poverty History march. Council workers on the front line were faced with extraordinary challenges. One unheralded property officer may have saved Inverleith Park from significant damage by single-handedly heading off a group of 300 environmental activists who pitched up unannounced in the middle of the night.

“He managed, God bless him, to bully and cajole them into moving on to Craigmillar, which can’t have been an easy task,” Mr Anderson said. “These were not fluffy bunny environmentalists – these were hardened activists.”

He adds: “One of the most moving things for me was that we managed to have a book put on at the campsite for visitors to leave their comments, and the number of positive comments about Craigmillar and how lovely the area was around Hunter’s Hall park was really quite touching. I wish more people knew how nice an area that is.”

For Frank Russell, 67, a retired former councillor from Broomhouse, it was a family affair, with his wife, two children and four grandchildren all taking part. He had been on dozens of marches, big and small, but this one was special – and not just because he was charged with pushing perhaps the youngest attendee there that day: three-month-old Jasmine Walford.

“The thing about that day was the real feeling of optimism,” he says. “People felt as if we could ­actually achieve something. It was a really pleasant day. I think it left the city with a great image.”

The march passed off peacefully, with only a small group of troublemakers identified by police before the event and quickly isolated from the march. “The police handled that superbly and made them look like a bunch of silly schoolchildren,” Mr Anderson says. “The police were really, really smart about some things. They’d said to Bob Geldof that it would be best if he was shadowed by a senior officer.

“What they were actually doing is getting someone into the Geldof camp so they knew what he was saying.”