Sunday, 13 February 2011

Taking to the streets

On Friday evening I caught the news headlines just as I was on my way to a concert. I was struck by the juxtaposition of the first headline – that in Egypt, Mubarak had stood down as President as a result of the persistent street protests; and the third one – that the British government had announced the postponement of their proposed sell-off of forestry land in order to put in place more safeguards in relation to preservation of public access and biodiversity. The government wasn’t admitting that this had anything to do with the torrent of letters on the subject received by MPs, or with the almost half a million signatures on a petition opposing the sell-off. And of course polite protests through the instruments of democracy can’t be compared with 18 days of occupation in Tahrir Square . . . but nevertheless, the two news items appearing together seemed significant.

Street protests have a long history. I was interested to see that Exeter University offers a 90-credit module on ‘Organised Street Protest in Modern British and American History: Context’ as part of its History degree. The module looks at ‘the evolution of organised street protest as a form of political participation in Britain and the United States from the end of the 19th century to the present’; and at ‘when and why people chose to take to the streets, how they presented themselves, how their protest was perceived and whether it was successful’. The particular examples used are:

- Unemployed Protest in Britain from the 1880s to the First World War
- Coxey's Army and the First March on Washington
- Women's Suffrage Demonstrations
- the Labour Movement and 1st May
- Labour Unrest after the First World War
- Fascist Demonstrations
- Hunger Marchers in Britain and in the United States
- the Jarrow Crusade, and the Marches of the Blind to London
- the Bonus Army
- the Civil Rights Movement in the United States
- Protest against the Vietnam War
- the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
- the People's Marches for Jobs
- the Million Man March
- the Orange Order Parades in Northern Ireland
- the Protest against the Iraq War
- the Anti-Globalisation Protest

I’m interested in what isn’t in this list. For instance: the 1968 student protests, significant in Paris and in Britain; the Greenham Common women’s protest against US Cruise missiles; the feminist 'Reclaim the Night' marches; the roads protests . .  .

This syllabus is only trying to address the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but, of course, street protest has a much older history. Wikipedia has a wonderful page called ‘List of Riots’. It’s an international list, and starts with a Roman Election riot in 121 BCE, proceeding via the English Anti-Turnpike riot of 1735, to a very long list of 21st century disturbances. Of course this page is incomplete, necessarily so. From a British point of view it is missing – for instance – the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the Corn Laws riots of 1815, and the Cable Street riot of 1936.

Perhaps what is especially noteworthy about the recent peacable Cairo protest is the role of the army, in that it didn’t violently repress the riot, and the people seem to feel that the military can be trusted. This isn’t the case in most of the history of street protests, when the people have put their vulnerable bodies up against the weaponry and armour of organised military force. One example of this, taken to extreme lengths, was Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930. This was a protest against oppressive British taxation, and it was not only a people’s demonstration but an avowedly nonviolent protest (an example of Satyagraha) – the people had only their vulnerable bodies and the justice of their claims.

Another form of people protest is civil disobedience, which can take many forms. For instance, in South Africa under apartheid, the 1957 Bus Boycott saw thousands of Africans walking to and from work (a round trip of up to 20 miles a day) in a refusal to ride in the buses when the fares were increased because the government refused to increase its subsidy.

For poor people, the increase of a penny each way on the fare was significant and there were no alternative means of transport. The boycott committee held frequent open-air meetings where people were informed of the negotiations between the bus company and the municipality. People could offer their perspectives, and were given a chance to vote on proposed solutions. There was considerable sympathy for the boycotters among liberal Whites, who would drive the route to offer lifts to the Black commuters. Interestingly, the boycotters had to walk some distance through White suburbs, bringing Whites face-to-face with Black protesters. For a while the Black people of Alexandra had become visible to the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg.

The boycott lasted for six months and succeeded in having the fare taken back down to its previous rate. This was one of the few successful protests under Apartheid.

The lesson of riots, street protests, nonviolent demonstrations, civil disobedience and even petitions is that governments – even those that are not elected by the people – can only govern with the consent of the people: ‘we are many, they are few’. This is derived from a verse of Shelley's poem The Mask of Anarchy:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.

The poem was written following the massacre carried out by the British Government at Peterloo, Manchester 1819, when cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 gathered at a meeting to demand the reform of parliamentary representation.

I recall being at a seminar in the 1980s, given by James O’Connell, the second Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford, following Adam Curle. James is Irish and so can speak about ‘you English’. He said:
“You English have two great illusions about yourselves. You think you’re a great peace-loving nation, yet you have fought more wars on foreign soil than any other nation in history. You think you’re a law-abiding nation, yet – throughout history – when law and justice have been in conflict, the English people have opted for justice.”
He then gave a long list of actions starting with the Peasants’ Revolt and ending with the Greenham Common women (an action that was in process at the time of the seminar). He pointed out that the Greenham action had a long and honourable pedigree, and I found myself wondering how different our perceptions would be if the history we had been taught at school had been the history of protest by the people – rather than a history of monarchs and wars.

Tony Benn and Roy Baileys acclaimed performance piece, The Writing on the Wall attempts to do just this. Tony Benn’s selection of writings from across history, and Roy Bailey’s pertinent and illustrative songs, give us a different view of where we came from and how we got here. It’s a wonderful performance and I was privileged to see them live a few years ago. There is a CD of a live recordingand Tony Benn has gathered his readings together into a book, now sadly out of print, though second-hand copies can be found. It’s called Writings on the Wall: Radical and Socialist Anthology 1215-1984. I checked as I was writing this post and both Amazon and AbeBooks have copies.

This is a great historical meander, but what’s it got to do with sustainability? Well, everything, actually.

During the last election campaign my local climate change campaign group held a public meeting with the four candidates for my constituency (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green). All of them ‘got’ climate change, at least in theory, and all argued that it was centrally important and that their policies reflected this. Towards the end of the meeting I stood up and asked a question:
"There is no evidence that the vast majority of the British public has yet got the smallest inkling of the scale of the changes we are going to have to make to our way of life. They are not busy signing up for this. The only way these changes can be achieved, therefore, is by significant, and uncomfortable, legislation, regulation and taxation. Government, of any political stripe, is always looking over its shoulder at the effects its policies will have, come the next general election. How, then, on a time scale of four to five years, can you begin to implement change on the scale that is needed?"
The question received a huge round of applause and then each candidate – including the Green – struggled, and waffled, and gave a completely unconvincing answer.

Governments will not make the changes needed until they can see that it won’t lose them the next election. Continuing to raise awareness, to talk to people, to write letters, to sign petitions . . . all these will remain important. We have to create momentum, and we may, in the end, have to take to the streets. We aren’t there yet – there are not enough of us yet who would join such an action. The paradox is this: if it becomes clear to everyone that there are enough of us, then we might not actually need to take to the streets. It’s possible that democracy could work. But on this issue it might not.

This question, whether democratic processes can deliver in relation to climate change, will be one of the issues we tackle in the spring Good Lives weekend, when we'll be looking at politics more widely:

Good Lives - because God has no hands but ours
Friday 1 - Sunday 3 April
All governments make policy choices that fail to meet the challenges of creating a sustainable society. Campaigners are coming to despair that a democratic society will ever be able to do the right thing. We will explore what we, as citizens, can and should do to change Britain's politics for the better, considering aspects of witnessing to Quaker values in a compromised and combative political process. Participants will gain an insight into effective ways of using politics to get things done.

Simon Beard works in parliament advising MPs, Peers, think tanks and other organisations. He specialises in equality, wellbeing and the environment. Pam Lunn is the Programme Leader for the Good Lives Project at Woodbrooke.
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Two days after I posted this article, The Guardian ran two stories on its Comment and Debate page that both reinforce what I was saying.

George Monbiot writes a piece about a financial practice called naked short selling, and describes the government’s refusal to regulate this harmful practice is part of its programme to govern for the benefit of the rich elite, regardless of the consequences for the poor and the ‘middle’. He then writes ‘Look to Cairo’, and refers to the UK Uncut street demonstrations against tax-evading companies as an example of what is needed in this country.

Immediately beneath Monbiot’s article is Madeleine Bunting’s piece about why the government has not awarded to Citizens UK the contract to train thousands of community organisers as part of the Big Society initiative. Citizens UK has overwhelmingly the best experience to undertake this training, and has been lauded by David Cameron as an example of the ‘Big Society in action’. But it is radical, and may be too good at what it does for the government’s liking. Their founder, Neil Jameson, says, “We teach people to take power.”
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1 comment:

  1. A small victory for people-power: the British Government is abandoning its policy to sell off the English forests. See

    (sorry the comments box doesn't do hyperlinks)