Britain shows it can still stage a decent demo – pity about the mob


The TUC march was carnival-like, with witty banners and outfits, but TV coverage predictably focused on the hooligans


So now we know. Eight years after the Iraq war protest filled London's streets, late consumer-capitalist Britain can still manage a decent mass march despite the distractions of weekend shopping and at least three national sporting fixtures.


A pity then about the mini-mob whose attacks on shops and banks in the West End predictably dominated TV coverage and gave the Tory tabloids scope for glib, wildly misleading "Britain's Face of Hatred" headlines. Bonfires that would not raise an eyebrow in a suburban garden can look like Armageddon in Piccadilly Circus.


In reality there were two demonstrations taking place in central London on Saturday – the TUC's wholesome family affair in Hyde Park and the testosterone-fuelled drama a mile away. Around both demos, there were also several different Londons – seedy Soho, chic Notting Hill and Bayswater, wealthy Mayfair, posh Knightsbridge, serene Kensington Gardens – just a few streets away but carrying on with normal life.


Like that morning's Guardian/ICM poll they reminded marchers that many Britons don't think the cuts go far enough. There was no hostility, but local shoppers, bemused tourists clutching purchases and cameras, the working city, were barely disturbed except in the hotspots – Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, Oxford Circus – targeted by a familiar mixture of hooligans, self-styled anarchists and the wholesome young activists of UK Uncut who invaded smart Fortnum & Mason.


What happened here was not merely predictable, but predicted in some detail, in a way it had not been before similar animal spirits disfigured the student fees protests in November. This time most of the 4,500 police officers were on their conspicuous best behaviour, perhaps even quietly sympathetic about cuts they will share while enjoying a spot of overtime.


David Cameron would be unwise to take his cue from the tabloids to tar the TUC and Ed Miliband with the graffiti, bonfires and broken windows of the minority.

They were no more representative of the "March for the Alternative" crowd – anything between 250,000-strong (the police estimate) and twice that number (the TUC) – than investment bankers are of Tory Britain, though plenty of Hyde Park speakers were equally happy to lump them together too.


From as far away as Edinburgh and Cornwall, by car, train and bus, the crowd had started marching from the Embankment at 11.30am – and tail-enders such as Graham Scrivener and Flora Wilson, both Hackney teachers, only reached the park gates at five, long after most marchers had started streaming home.


"We started marching at 12.30, through Parliament Square, Whitehall and Lower Regent Street. The mood was light-hearted, almost carnival-like," they said later, gleefully recalling witty banners and outfits.


One group had dressed up as members of Oxford's Bullingdon Club, albeit chained to two blood-stained public spending "butchers". A small girl's placard proclaimed: "When the situation is as dire as this I don't mind my parents using me as a political pawn." On the reverse side it added: "They told me there'd be biscuits."


Amid the flags and earnest "save our libraries", "cut war, not welfare" and occasional "hands off Libya" posters, there was plenty such wit. "Down with this sort of thing," proclaimed one placard. "Down with the cuts, up with the skirts," said a young woman's T-shirt. The tone was light years from "fuck the rich" already scrawled on banks (and an Ann Summers sex shop) down the road.


The park crowd was as good a sample of urban Britain as organisers could have hoped for: grannies with children, punks and old hippies in bandanas, hijabis and women with pink hair, Guardian readers with designer glasses, young, old, fashionable, scruffy. Tony Benn arrived alone on foot with his own chair.


So did Walter Wolfgang, famously ejected from a Labour conference. Nearby Simon Landau, made redundant at 58 from his job as an IT manager in Sheffield steel, explained that he and his teacher wife, Jackie, had come to "stand up and be counted". Nigel Thornton, who runs his own consultancy, said: "It's not just unions here. My business stands to make £10,000 from the cut in corporation tax. I don't want it. I want better services."


There were MPs (Hilary Benn and family), a smattering of celebs, a lot of public sector workers, Unison stewards in smart purple smocks. No masked youths in the park, no insistent drumming, only whistles and vuvuzelas and a smattering of Angries who later drifted off to find the action in Piccadilly, guided by Twitter and texting.


Led by the redoubtable Frances O'Grady, the TUC's stentorian No 2, a succession of union leaders and VIPs addressed the throng in time-honoured fashion. Feminists spoke of how cuts threaten women, ethnic groups of the "race penalty" in terms of lower wages. The European TUC's Bernadette Segol pledged 60 million EU trade unionists to stop "the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer".


"God's economy is about grace and sufficiency, not greed and scarcity," said a female cleric. "The best way to rob a bank is to manage one," said Leo Gerard of the TUC's US counterpart the AFL-CIO, one of many to posit "the millions against the millionaires".


The warmest cheers came for the NHS ("not for sale", warned Unison's Dave Prentis), for attacks on the banks or (Unite's Len McCluskey) that "gaggle of public schoolboys on the make" who run the coalition. Hardly anyone bothered to mention Nick Clegg.


This was a hearts over head day, a day for dignified protest, not for "what next?" strategy. So there was little about the alternative to coalition cuts other than "tax the rich", offset by the admission from moderates such as USDAW's John Hannett that "the deficit must be attacked, but we need politicians who demonstrate not just competence but also empathy" – for those who might suffer.


Ed Miliband made a nod in the direction of realism too. "Cuts are necessary, but this government is going too far, too fast," he said. His assessment is shared by Keynesian Nobel laureates and FT leader-writers, but it did not win universal approval. "Rubbish," and "You're singing the old song, mate" greeted his speech. Plus "you had your chance" and "you're a fucking millionaire," from determined hecklers.


It must have been a daunting moment, but Miliband persisted. He invoked Hyde Park's history of protest, the Suffragettes, the Chartists (no mention of the Countryside Alliance's 1998 demo or the reform riots of 1866) and said how "profoundly moved" he was to be there.


Unkindly the TV cameras split their screens between his speech and the incipient mini-riot elsewhere.


The Labour leader came to the podium in the park sensibly early in the running order – around two o'clock – as morning sunshine gave way to grey skies, a cold wind and even rain. So he was not there to hear Mark Serwotka of the white-collar PCS deliver the afternoon's most uncompromising message: don't make cuts, just tax rich "scroungers" as they should be taxed.


He named Topshop's boss, Sir Philip Green. The cheer was enormous. Down the road the rival demo was busy taking it out on Topshop, Boots and McDonald's, proof that even self-styled anarchists are as much in thrall to mainstream brands and logos as any other late capitalist consumers. Just streets away the discreet Mayfair homes and offices of the global hedge fund tribe went undisturbed.