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Saturday, November 13, 2010

A brief history of violence

Current mood: cynical

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In 1926, as the general strike was looming over the horizon, negotiations between the Trades Union Congress and the Government broke down. This was partly attributed to a group of printers refusing to go to press when their newspaper ran an anti-strike editorial, objecting to a claim therein that the TUC could only succeed by ‘destroying the government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people.’ This show of brotherhood angered Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister at the time, and he called off all talks. Ironically, fantastically, the paper in question was none other than the Daily Mail.

Sadly, I feel such events are mere history; with so many jobs on the line, I can’t imagine principles will be getting in the way of print runs anytime soon. On the other hand, last year I wouldn’t have imagined the level of civil unrest that could now be approaching. While Thursday saw voices across Britain falling silent, Wednesday saw our capital filled with the shouts of students, teachers and families as they marched against the planned increase in tuition fees.

I dimly recall the introduction of the fees, over a decade ago, and seeing footage of what seemed a pitiful protest on the television. My lasting memory was of a handful of students outside the gates of Westminster, holding soggy banners in the rain. I wondered, in my innocent way, where the anger was. I’ve wondered the same thing many times since. Now it’s come back, and nobody seems to know how to deal with it.

Far from a single moment, this protest is the tip of the iceberg. It’s not the first display of anger since the Con-Lib (but mostly Con) coalition came to power, but it’s the most eye-grabbing, and promises have already been made that there’s more to come. The backlash against Government cuts has now begun in earnest, and violence has inevitably followed along. What’s so surprising about the events on Wednesday is that there was any surprise at all. There’s a huge tar-pit of resentment burning under Britain at the moment, fuelled by year on year on year of lies, deception, incompetence and failure. Sooner or later it was going to flare up, and the resulting chaos has already succeeded in damning the credibility of an otherwise legitimate protest. The enduring image of Wednesday could have been thousands of everyday citizens, driven to action, finally standing up and reminding our leaders that they are accountable for their actions. Instead it’s going to be a fire extinguisher thrown from Millbank roof.

And yet…

And yet, deplorable as any violence is, I can’t deny the small part of me that saw the occupation and thought fucking finally.

Students are an easy target because, unlike workers, they have relatively little retaliatory power. The traditional ‘last resort’ for an employed group who have been pushed too far is to strike. As a body effectively separate from the mass workforce of the country, this isn’t an option for students. A mass walkout of lectures would be the most futile strike action imaginable, and wouldn’t disrupt things for anyone other than themselves. Lecturers striking is equally counter-productive, as anyone who remembers their strike in 2006 can tell you, causing damage only to student education and creating a divide where there should be unity. This lack of power to cause significant disruption within the confines of the law makes the student body relatively easy to ignore, as it means their anger doesn’t lead to any immediate repercussions for the Government.

(Note that I’m saying immediate repercussions. The long-term effects of an upcoming brain drain in Britain are going to be horrendous, I have no doubt, and in political terms there will be huge backlashes at the next election, but having now been let down by every side there is, the results of this are anyone’s guess. With Labour, the Tories and now the Lib Dems all cohorts in fuckery, there’s a hole where previously there were options. We’ve already seen only the second hung parliament in 70 years, who knows what’s going to happen next?)

Without the power to disrupt within the letter of the law, this leads to the inevitable idea of disrupting outside of the law, and that’s what we saw on Wednesday. The more extreme actions may have been carried out by a minority (and the fire extinguisher incident by one person, which is about the smallest minority you can get), but to brush the occupation off in the way many people have done, myself initially included, doesn’t hold up against the reality of the situation. 2,000 people is not a ‘tiny’ group. Whether right or wrong, their actions were a scream in the face, not a shout from the back of the crowd. Given the track record of futility seen in peaceful protests – the Iraq war marches come to mind – it should be no surprise that some of those in attendance on Wednesday decided that the mere waving of a banner was not enough. Far from fringe anarchists, these were people no different from anyone else, a potent reminder that you don’t have to be Socialist to be furious. Especially when that anger is so easily justified.

This leaves us with a gulf between right and wrong, and an impossibly muddy issue. Perhaps some of those on the roof were thinking of the poll tax riots, and the successes seen there, comparing them to the failed marches earlier this year in favour of proportional representation. Probably many of them were just amazed to find that they could take action at all. With Wednesday as a precedent, the anger of Britain’s dispossessed has come into play, and it becomes a question of who’s going to cave first. Whether the use of direct force will spread remains to be seen, but the voices raised outside Millbank demand an answer, and the call for solidarity is growing. If the peaceful protest continues to fail then a few smashed windows may only be the beginning.

Whatever your opinion on the use of force to make a point, never forget why this protest took place at all. The mobilisation may have been because of the cuts, but the true target was the base and disgusting lies told by Nick Clegg and his cohorts, who see no shame in going back on concrete promises made mere months before. The methods may be wrong, but the anger behind Wednesday’s events is justified, the anger is right, and the anger should not be trivialised by anybody.

-JIMMY (still paying that damn student loan)

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