November 28th, 2011 at 10:00 am
| | Posted in UK Politics
In Egypt, they endure the bullets; in Syria, they risk torture and summary execution; in China, they are immolating themselves in ever greater numbers, directly giving their lives for an ounce of equality. In the West, they sit in tents and paint funny signs. It’s not because they’re uncommitted, but because that’s all they need to do. They endure the taunting of the right, the chilling weather and the risk of arbitrary arrest but they stay … and many of them even smile.
In the early days of mass media, the disaffected found that peaceful but irritating acts of protest gain the exposure that spread their message and damaged the reputation of those they targeted. While the Suffragettes were widely scorned for their tactics of disrupting public events and chaining themselves to railings, ‘right-thinking’ man and woman alike cheering the arrest of each, the freedom fighters earned themselves the reverence of history.
And so it continued throughout the last century, through strikers, hippies, anti-war protesters, miners, Poll Tax rioters, animal welfare and green activists – all were ridiculed, feared and punished for their disturbing of the public mores. They dressed untidily, made lots of noise, blocked the public highway and failed to engage in a sophisticated way with the establishment. Yet, I would argue, the messages of each one enlightened the political debate and shifted public opinion in their favour.
Britain remains such a psychologically conservative nation that we have an inherent distrust of radicalism in all its forms. Paradoxically, by allowing a society where free debate and protest are allowed, we open the floodgates to the radical movements that much of the world has generally been able to suppress. Whereas marches and strikes were once met with sabres and rifles, November 30th will be little more than a family day out for the lower-middle classes.
And now it’s happening again. When it became clear that the Occupy protesters were not going anywhere, the public’s first reaction was to get ticked off. They were accused of spoiling St Paul’s for the tourists and wedding parties; of sophistry with their lack of fully considered demands; and the news that some of the protesters were leaving their tents abandoned for the odd night at home was met with incredulity as if they were trying to dupe the public to undeserved sympathy.
More recently, they’re being perceived as engaging in some sort of squatters party, endlessly drinking in public, urinating in alleyways, filling their veins with heroin and infecting one another with AIDS in an orgy of leftie pleasure. It’s become so de rigueur for the chattering classes to mock them that even the apolitical millionaire entertainer, Chris Evans, strongly stated his distaste for them on his otherwise bland Radio 2 breakfast show.
But now their stamina to withstand weather, legal threats and time has been demonstrated, they are starting to get plaudits from among the radical edges of the establishment. Celebrity campaigners, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Opposition Leader and now the Business Secretary have all added their sympathy in recent weeks, each bringing a small drip of credibility to the movement. This support is more powerful than jeers from bores like Boris Johnson and it makes it that much harder for the police to move against them.
What much of the right-wing press is unwilling to admit is that there is something impressive about the creativity and responsible nature of the protesters. Unlike the self-serving public sectors workers about to engage in the most disruptive strike action the UK has seen for a generation, the Occupy movement are not blackmailing the nation; unlike the destructive anarchy that has accompanied recent protest marches, their methods have tiptoed the minefield around the confusing web of criminal offences that would allow the police to sweep in and arrest them; unlike the petitioners and rally speakers and public meeting holders, they aren’t just in the news one day and forgotten the next.
Of course, the ill-conceived and unrealistic demands of the protesters mean that they will be judged by popular history as a failure. There will be no ending of greed, no destroying of capitalism, no removing of the profit incentive while simultaneously funding evermore social welfare. But their language and their arguments are already sneaking into our consciousness and our vocabulary, even in Westminster. They may be young, naive and economically illiterate but even those of us who realise markets are a mostly reliable force for good tend to agree that things have gone badly wrong and the system must be amended.
Unlike those striking for others to pay for the masses to continue generously funding their pensions, Occupy will win because their message resonates: the system is broken, the bankers got away with it and the innocent were punished. The next month is key: if they survive eviction, snowfall and the draw of a family Christmas, then their credibility will be assured. They will serve to remind us not to be distracted by the Eurozone and the credit agencies and all the foreign things we can do little about and they will serve to remind the bankers and politicians that the country is still awaiting justice.
David M Gibson is a classical liberal and a member of the Liberal Democrats. He is currently interning at Lib Dem HQ for the campaigns team. A collection of his writings can be found at davethedystopian.blogspot.com, as well as on the Freedom Association website. David recently posted “the stupid 100%” here on LV.
Tags: Occupy London
, Occupy LSX