JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 1.4.11.
SPRING 2011; and once again, for the fourth or fifth time in two decades, the western powers are on the march, seeking to use military means to help export their model of democracy and freedom to other parts of the world. Across the middle east and North Africa, since the turn of the year, we have seen ample evidence that millions of people there aspire to many of the things we in the west want for ourselves; including freedom, prosperity, hope for the future, and a serious say in the way their society is run.
The only problem with all this, though, is that here at home, our model of democracy, and of a free and open society, seems to be in some serious trouble. As everyone in Britain knows, last Saturday something close to half a million people gathered to march in London against the present round of government spending cuts. The demonstration was accurately described by the BBC World Service as “overwhelmingly peaceful”; but towards the end of it, a group of black-clad young activists in masks, who had not been on the march, rampaged through the West End, smashing a few windows, notably at the Ritz Hotel, and tipping over rubbish-bins.
At the same time, a peaceful direct action group called UK Uncut – who have recently been doing a sterling job in highlighting the massive level of tax avoidance by major companies – staged a sit-in at the upmarket food emporium Fortnum & Mason. In the aftermath of all this, some 149 people were arrested; but it turns out that 138 of them were actually the sit-in hippies from Fortnum’s, and only 11 were charged with damage to property or violence against persons.
So there we go: half a million people march peacefully in an effort to influence the direction of government policy, and eleven are arrested for “violent” or criminal behaviour. If the coverage had been in proportion to the numbers involved, there would have been fifteen days of continuous coverage of the thoughts of the peaceful protestors, to every one minute of coverage of those committing criminal acts. Yet the media coverage of the event focussed almost entirely on the “violence”; and by Monday, the tone of some mainstream media had become almost hysterical, with Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis – she of the alleged £650,000 annual salary – working herself into a such a quivering rage that she was to be seen snarling and snapping her way through an interview with a UK Uncut representative like some Victorian dowager berating an uppity peasant.
And none of this is good enough, for at least three reasons. First, these negative, guilt-by-association attitudes to last week’s demonstration are unacceptable because people have every reason, and every democratic right, to protest against a programme of cuts which was not fully proposed by any party at last year’s general election, and was explicitly opposed by one of the parties now in government.
Secondly, the right to protest outwith the conventional political system is particularly important at the moment, because our mainstream political parties are failing to express the full range of political views. As commentators are not slow to point out, the Labour Party accepts the broad argument that painful cuts are necesssary; whereas out there in the centre-left blogosphere, more and more apparently cogent voices are arguing that Britain’s deficit is not in fact at historically high levels, that there is no real threat to our credit rating, and that the whole “deficit” story is being ramped up to justify a right-wing attack on the public sector. I do not know whether this is true; but this vital debate is certainly quite absent from the arena of parliamentary politics, a situation which – given the devastating impact of some of these cuts – seems little short of scandalous.
Even more important than all of this, though, is the sense of a growing culture of intolerance towards active dissent, expressed in dozens of police and media comments since last Saturday. The coverage of the sit-in at Fortnum’s would have been hilarious if its implications had not been so worrying, with phalanxes of police inspectors talking alarmist rubbish about threats to the public, and Fortnum’s staff giving solemn interviews about the threat of “violence” to displays of dish-towels and wedding-cakes. The British used to be quite a robust people, proud of our tradition of open debate, fond of a bit of argument. Now, though, we seem to have dwindled into a nation of petulant, narrow-minded control-freaks, who get wobbly-lipped with self-pity – or downright nasty and authoritarian – at the sight of anyone with unconventional clothes or ideas, or the energy to protest in public about anything. Hence, perhaps, the rigid demand that all our party leaders be well-bred married men of 40, dressed in identical suits; a pressure to which Ed Milliband effectively succumbed this week, when he announced his imminent marriage to his long-term partner.
And what that means, at the deepest level, is that for all our fine words, we in the UK, no longer care much for freedom, or for democracy; we prefer order, and the rigid enforcement of a superficial “normality”. As for our political and media establishment, at UK level it now seems locked into a downward spiral of aggressive cynicism and deeply irresponsible sensationalism, in which violent incidents – however trivial – are always rated as far more significant than any peaceful protest, however vast; and in which those who campaign peacefully for political change are cast as history’s fools, not nasty and thrilling enough to count.
This will not stop people from protesting, of course; everywhere on earth, where political systems begin to fail, people come onto the streets to express their longing for change. For those who care about the future of the British state, though, the response to last week’s events should ring the loudest of alarm-bells; for in its rigidity, its hysteria, its lack of perspective, and its humourless intolerance, it bespeaks not a nation with a bright future, but an old regime rapidly losing the power to adapt, and becoming more brittle and fragile by the minute.