Tuesday, 29 March 2011

In for a Penny

Father Rattue observes (with typical iconoclasm) on his Facebook page:

The March Against Cuts was 'marred' by the disorder, everyone says. Funny, I feel the other way around. I think the thinking behind the March makes no sense, but can sympathise with anyone for wanting to lob a brick at Lloyds' ...

Meanwhile, this year's must-have young radical Laurie Penny has sparked a minor blogquake with her reports and Tweets from Saturday's London demo. In a now-deleted Tweet, she suggested that "smashing a window is not the same thing as violence", leading Charon QC to declare that he did "not expect to read nonsense about *Violence* on twitter from a 'respected journalist'." At Penny's own New Statesman website, Mehdi Hasan thought her preference for window smashing and sit-ins over houmous and speeches was not just silly but served to "wreck an important and historic march by rewarding right-wing, pro-cuts media outlets with the negative headlines and imagery that they had so craved."

Now I have a major soft spot for Laurie Penny (and none for Mehdi Hasan) but superficially the case against her is compelling. For most of the marchers, the experience of Saturday's protest was one of a family-friendly Spring walk, rounded off with the rare treat of hearing Labour's charismatic new leader speak live. It was, like the anti-Iraq war and Countryside marches of yesteryear, a coming-together of a large cross-section of middle England in a common, doomed cause (for it will, of course, no more stop the cuts than an even larger demonstration Stopped the War). Yet the "official" marchers get home and what do they see? Sit-ins, kettling, black-clad "anarchists" baying for broken glass. The actions of a few did indeed tip the balance of reporting, and Laurie's choice to report from the point of view of that minority serves to bolster the misleading impression that criminal, violent and non-violent direct action was what Saturday's rally was all about.

After careful consideration, though, my response to Mehdi Hasan is "boo-hoo". Laurie Penny is right to emphasise the fringe over the centre - if only because, as at the Edinburgh Festival, the Fringe is where most of the interesting things go on. The fact that the TUC can assemble "up to" half a million peaceful demonstrators in opposition to spending cuts is logistically impressive but of no great significance. The opponents of cuts have no coherent analysis and no alternative programme beyond Labour's official position of cutting almost, but not quite as much from the national budget. Many in the largely public-sector crowd were, presumably, worried about losing their jobs, which is understandable and a perfectly good reason for them to march. But, in a developed democracy (unlike, say, in Egypt or Tunisia) demonstrations of "people power" do not topple governments or alter the course of national policy. They are self-indulgent and a waste of time, or at most a form of group therapy for those taking part. Saturday's march was, then, not really news. A lot of people don't like the idea of cutting public services? Yes, we knew.

On the other hand, the much smaller, legally contested activities of UKUncut, to say nothing of the anarchist Blackshirts (do these people have absolutely no historical awareness, I wonder?) is newsworthy, and not simply because pictures of smashed windows look dramatic or because the quixotic decision to target Fortnum and Mason's produced the day's one good joke ("Because proper tea is theft"). First of all, it has led to the Coalition government, focus of so many liberal hopes after Labour's authoritarian decade, muttering about repressive new laws. Yes, "dawn raids and snatch squads" sound almost Gaddafian, as David Davis pointed out in the House of Commons. But it increasingly looks as though such measures might be needed if we aren't to see scenes like Saturday's recurring at ever more frequent intervals.

There's a debate to be had as to whether, in that case, the cure would be worse than the disease (and I think Mark Wallace probably goes too far in seeing in the protest groups the seeds of full-blown terrorism). The people Laurie Penny celebrates in her writing are characterised not by violence (most are avowedly peaceful) but by a combination of spontaneity and truculence that makes them peculiarly hard for the authorities to deal with. Nonetheless, the activities of the "mindless minority of thugs and hooligans" (Theresa May) are now a regular and predictable feature of large public demonstrations called with traditional and peaceful intentions. This is a major change in the architecture of protest in Britain (though not of other European countries) and is thus properly the chief focus of attention.

And even the law-abiding majority - many of them - will be torn between shock at "mindless violence" (and the inconvenience it causes) and a sneaking regard for it. There's an urge - as Martin Amis once said in another context - don't you feel it? - to "lob a brick at Lloyds" (if not, perhaps, Fortnums; certainly TopShop had it coming). It's an urge that, in a civilised society, is usually sublimated into grumbling, calling radio-phone-ins or these days posting comments at the end of online newspaper articles. But a low, persistent hum of outrage - just below the surface - is everpresent and getting louder. Dissatisfaction with the political system and the radical inequalities of a globalised economy is hard to miss. Even if you don't agree with their naive politics, even if you despise their methods, is there not something strangely cathartic in watching the anarchists at their work?