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Tuesday, 7 November, 2000, 16:28 GMT
Grey army on the march
Pensioner
Pensioner shows her feelings at a rally in London
By BBC News Online's Ben Davies

They had travelled from as far afield as Blackpool and Southampton to vent their anger over their treatment by successive governments.

Appalling weather, trains in chaos, and not even the cost of coming to the capital, was going to dissuade hundreds of senior citizens from making the journey.

And then finally, as they reached their destination, there were dozens of stairs to climb so they could hear words from veteran Labour politician Baroness Barbara Castle, pensions campaigner Jack Jones and the actor Tony Booth.

Anger made them climb those stairs in Methodist Central Hall - the same anger that made them come to London in the first place.

Anger

You could smell that anger. Anger and perhaps just a hint of embrocation.

Some carried banners with legends such as "restore the link" and "no means testing".

One Welsh pensioner, inspired by the nation of bards, carried a placard with the poetic slogan "Blair be fair, show us you care".

The generation that had fought and survived World War II had come to London to teach the politicians a lesson.

Standing ovations

There were rousing speeches from Baroness Castle who said that slogans were not enough.

"Slogans must be defined by law and enforced by law," said the woman who had first enshrined the link between pensions and earnings on the statute book.

Several standing ovations later Baroness Barbara sat down to be replaced at the rostrum, somewhat incongruously, by TV's Dr Mark Porter.

Dr Porter, who's soothing voice is legendary, oozed his best bedside manner as he gently told the gathered throng that those who shouted got the best treatment on the NHS.

They must raise their voices over pensions too, he said

Barnstorming

But perhaps the most barnstorming speech came from Tony Booth, famed both for his TV role as Alf Garnett's "lazy scouse git" son-in-law and for his real life role as Tony Blair's father-in-law.

Tony Booth
Tony Booth delivers the petition
Clearly there's no need for mother-in-law jokes at Number 10 - nor indeed neighbour-from-hell jokes at Number 11, when Mr Booth is staying.

Mr Booth, who earlier had delivered a petition to Buckingham Palace, began his speech by telling Jack Jones to "give 'em hell" as he went off for talks with Chancellor Gordon Brown.

He told of his personal anger over pensions, how senior citizens had been "robbed" by Margaret Thatcher and how there was no dignity in poverty.

And in a turn of phrase that hailed back to the years of protests and picket lines of a different kind, he promised them: "We shall overcome, we shall indeed".

It was a like a scene from, well, the last Labour conference when Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe rose to his feet.

Nuclear weapons

Why are we spending 10bn pounds on keeping nuclear submarines in the Atlantic, he asked - after warning the crowd they might not agree with him.

Agree with him? They didn't hear him they were clapping so hard.

Clearly the rally at Westminster Hall is just the beginning of a new phase of pensioner action.

The grey army intend to fight on; some of the more radical elements even advocate direct action.

And they will not be quietened, they say, by a simple increase in the basic pension on Wednesday - their battle is about restoring the link between average earnings or inflation, whichever is higher.

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See also:

07 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Pensioners claim partial victory
25 Sep 00 | Labour
Pensioners on the warpath
27 Sep 00 | Labour
Labour tells unions to back down
28 Sep 00 | Labour
Blair stands firm on pensions
29 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Barbara Castle: Scaling the ramparts
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