An extremist scrape

Our Margit declares if hoo’d cloas to put on,
Hoo d go up to Lundun an’ see the young Queen,
An if things didn’t alter when hoo had been,
Hoo swears hoo would fight, blood up to th’een.
Hoo’s nought agen t’queen, but hoo likes a fair thing,
An’ hoo says hoo can tell when hoo’s hurt.
– “The Four Loom Weaver” (trad., 1830s)

Well, I didn’t go – partly influenced, I confess, by dystopian fantasies of mass kettling – and it went off brilliantly:

a wonderful, spirited, and conviction-driven multitude of ordinary people, representative of the British population in their diversity, marched in their hundreds of thousands.In doing so, they made it clear – we made it clear – that we simply will not accept the dismantling of our welfare state and public services

And I’m not going to qualify that. The march went off brilliantly. Half a million people, give or take, assembled in the middle of the capital to protest against the government’s attack on public services. Activists, burnt-out veterans and absolute beginners, they came from all over the country – from the post-industrial northwest to the Tory shires – and they marched together. It was a truly remarkable march and it went off brilliantly.

Shall we look at that picture again?

I was right the first time: that was what last Saturday looked like. Cheerful, united, determined and very, very large.

If you stop here you won’t miss much. The subject I want to talk about now is much more specialised: the subject of the coverage of Saturday’s march on left blogs, and specifically what’s annoyed me about it. (This post develops on comments here, here, here and on the interesting thread that’s developed here.) What’s annoyed me has been the insistent focus on the Black Bloc, on the vandalism around Piccadilly, on the ruck in Trafalgar Square, and in some cases on the direct action carried out by UK Uncut. Whichever group bloggers have chosen to concentrate on, the message has been the same: we, the peaceful and constructive majority, have had our protest commandeered and/or overshadowed by them, the irresponsible violent minority, and it’s of the first importance that we denounce them. Paul refers to “the growing orthodoxy that people can be split neatly into two groups – the peaceful protestors and the others”; posts like this don’t so much reflect that orthodoxy as enact it. On one side, good honest working-class folk who don’t mean any harm to anyone but want to make their voice heard:

The marchers were there to persuade. They were there to show that they are a rich and representative cross-section of society. They weren’t there to bring down the government … or to smash the state – or Fortnum and Mason. They were there to articulate that there was an alternative, to show strength in peaceful numbers and to build support for that alternative. They believe in the institutions of democracy of which mass protest in one aspect.

On the other, a gang of intamalectual posh boys with no roots in that rich and representative social humus, playing at revolution with their Blackberrys and their skinny lattes and their university educations:

When UK Uncut has returned to its revolutionary meetings in north London pubs, when they have finished riding the wave of publicity, when they have all gone on to secure columns in national newspapers, jobs for lobby firms, or have decided that the struggle is too expensive so a job in the City might suit after all, the people whose voice is never heard will still be silent. … The group’s retail outlet of protest choice is TopShop. Instant gratification consumerism has a mirror image in instant gratification politics. The dopamine rush of credit card financed prêt-a-porter fashion finds its corollary in the jejune fantasies of the retail activist chic.

As I was saying to my mates John and Vic on the picket line the other day*, if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a jejune dopamine rush – it’s just the mirror image of a prêt-a-porter corollary, when you look at it. They didn’t say anything, but I know they were agreeing silently, in a strong and peaceful kind of way.

A million Boxers betrayed by a hundred Nathans. Oh, the humanity – or rather, the lack of it, on both sides of that insultingly reductive passage. (Compare Raymond Williams on Winston Smith’s eulogising of the ‘proles’ in 1984: “nobody who belongs to this majority or who knows them as people will give a damn whether the figure on the other side of the street sees them as unthinking creatures out of whose mighty loins the future will come. The incomplete humanity will be too clearly visible in the gesticulating observer himself”). That things might be a bit more complicated than this was suggested by Paul’s eyewitness account:

As Lancashire’s finest middle-aged trade unionists shuffled along Piccadilly around 4pm, it became clear that something was going on at Fortnum and Masons, a well known deli in those parts. A young man was poking his arms out of a second floor window, waving a flag of red and black triangles. It wasn’t clear from our viewpoint what was going on, and we had no idea at that stage that the shop floor had been occupied by a 100 or so ‘Uncut’ afficianados. No police were present at that stage, as far as I could see, although there were a couple of vans parked close by.

But here’s the thing. All the dull, middle-aged/elderly Lancashire trade unionists I was with roared their approval, waved their placards, and surged – in a midly arthritic way – towards what they thought might be a better vantage point.

just for a minute, before they realised time was marching on faster than the march was marching, and that we could do with getting the tube from Green Park if we were to squeeze in the real ale incident before the coach picked us up… just for a minute, my comrades were well up for it.

No, no, no! They weren’t there to smash up Fortnum and Mason! They were there to show strength in peaceful numbers and support democracy! Really, Paul, who are you going to believe – Labour List or your own lying eyes?

This isn’t, of course, to say that all the marchers were relaxed about all the disorderly protest that took place along the way. Clearly it got a bit hairy at some points, and it didn’t need to. Simon:

A genuine left politics needs the parents with buggies, the pensioners, the previously apolitical young shift-worker, the middle-aged trade unionist, the unemployed single mother, and the keen, but nervous teenager. All of these were represented on the streets yesterday, and I watched a good number of them get very scared by the smokebombs and firecrackers of some of their fellow marchers. So there is a real issue here.

But this is a tactical issue, one to be resolved through discussion if possible, and otherwise by trial and error over the demonstrations to come. And in the mean time I think we should be a bit slower to assume that we can label a minority as ‘violent’ and the majority as ‘peaceful’. Come to that, I think we should be a bit more sparing with our condemnations of ‘violence’, which is after all an enormously broad term. I can’t improve on Simon’s discussion (same post) of what ‘violence’ actually means in this context:

one needs to distinguish between violence against property and against the person. I really can’t get worked-up over slight damage to buildings owned by corporations whose annual budget exceeds those of many nation states. In some cases, I think that the tactic can be really quite effective if it can muster a level of popular support. It is worth recalling, amidst all the moralising, Emmeline Pankhurst’s line “The argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics”. Ed Miliband, by the way, cited the suffragettes as a precursor to today’s anti-austerity movement. Sometimes, violence against property is unwise: if it is unjustified, or will scare or divide a political movement; and there is something quite unsavoury about the kind of person who relishes the prospect of smashing stuff up. Even here, though, let’s not forget that the actions of the state have wound up a generation, and created a confrontational climate. Not a few over-enthusiastic teenage vandals are the direct creation of the truncheons of the Metropolitan Police. As for violence against the person: well, I’m a reluctant non-pacifist, but there’s no immediate issue here. Well, there’s no issue on the side of the protesters. There are no Ian Tomlinsons on the police side.

That last one is an important point. It’s also worth stressing that – thankfully – there were no Ian Tomlinsons on the protesters’ side last weekend either; let’s hope that continues.

This is getting long, so I’ll defer the discussion of the media coverage of the protest to another post.

*For the avoidance of doubt, this conversation did not take place. I was on the picket line with my friends John and Vic the other day, however.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 30 March 2011 at 00:02 | Permalink | Reply

    Good post.

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