Winter of Discontent: Put away childish things



Image © Murdo Macleod

As a political anorak and resident of Edinburgh I dutifully plodded out to St Andrew’s House yesterday afternoon to stand in the cold and catch a glimpse of my Prime Minister greeting my First Minister. Though unaccredited, I was able to wander freely into the press pit and take my post amongst the telescopic lenses and cameras of Scotland’s media. Indeed, security was remarkably lax. Despite NUJ members having been informed that they would have to register their presence in some fashion, this was not enforced. The police presence was remarkable by its scarcity and, though a pair of suited men with prominent earpieces were to be seen presumably discussing security arrangements with a man conspicuously without a tie, the tone of the event was intensely relaxed.

Then, minutes before Mr Cameron was scheduled to arrive, the calm was pierced by a meagre gaggle of protesters who, by their garb and enthusiastic chanting of slogans from the 80s, I suspect represented the best and brightest of Edinburgh’s youth wing of the Socialist Workers Party. They were led by four ageing soldiers of the war against the Tories and the remaining three dozen or so represented their ideological progeny. The quiet afternoon air solidified into a greatest hits of three decade old resentment and anger as faint noises of traffic and the grumblings of bored and cold photographers was replaced by young voices raised in cries of “Tory scum” and “when you say cutback we say fight back.”

A dozen or so police officers appeared and took up station at the doors of the building as the protesters sat on the steps of the building with the intention of obstructing the arrival of the Prime Minister. Between them they brandished three signs, two reading “Coalition Against Cuts” and one “I’m so angry I made this sign.” The protesters – they were too few to be collectively referred to as a protest – were asked to move but there was no reaction from the police when they refused. From the press pit the gathered photographers and cameramen looked bemused while producers muttered that the new arrivals had better not ruin their shots.

Some cameras were discharged in the direction of the sit-in – or rather sit-on – and the concise congregation awoke with sporadic calls for Cameron’s head, once more. The stage was set for an underwhelming conflagration of police, protesters and Prime and First Ministers until the pool photographer was spotted leaving the building and the less than revelatory realisation dawned that Mr Cameron had long since entered via a side-door. This anti-climactic conclusion was met with cries of “Scotland 1, Tories nil” by the demonstrators. The media had been frustrated in its desire to visually capture the meeting of statesmen but the voice of the people had triumphed.

What, then, is to be taken from this encounter that prevented an encounter from occurring publicly? What lessons can we learn from the example of these brave rebels? They did emphatically inform all present that “this is what democracy looks like” so there must be something of value to be gleaned.

I can only speak for myself but I was merely amused and embarrassed. The chanted slogans were so sporadic that they took on a distinctly comical tone. At multiple points in the diminutive demonstration I found myself snorting with laughter. These young socialists and their ageing minders clearly perceived themselves to be brave crusaders against the injustice of austerity. Their pride in themselves and their stand – or rather sit – was palpable but the disparity between what they saw themselves to be and what I witnessed was vast. It seems to me rather dismal that these presumably relatively bright individuals, when faced with a meeting of two leaders meeting to discuss massive constitutional change, could only respond with the cry “Tory scum.” This was not a thoughtful protest. It did not widen or contribute to the debate on independence nor did it contribute meaningfully to the subject of austerity with which it hijacked the afternoon.

Though they chanted they did not seem truly angry. Though they refused to vacate the steps – and indeed chanted “we shall not be moved” when absolutely nobody attempted to move them – they did not seem truly defiant. Despite their apparent anguish, they looked happy. They looked content. The bonds of friendship and shared outrage shone and, had I not found their activities so distasteful, I would have desired to be part of their clearly pleasurable shared experience. Like gleeful children who had found a new and disruptive way to gain attention they sat. Their supervising adults looked like parents watching their children walk for the first time. One was left with the distinct impression that the only thing that could have made them happier was aggression from the police that would have vindicated the simplistic world-view that they espoused.

Whether by their own behaviour or by complacency in my observation, they embodied all that is risible and deserving of disregard in political protest. The ridiculous spectacle was made whole by their most esoteric exclamation: “We paid for you hats! We paid for your hats! What a waste of council tax, we paid for your hats!” This was directed at the police that encircled them. This drew my attention to the attending officers. They at least lent an air of authenticity to the affair. They stood imposingly in their uniforms, some with tight black scarves raised over their mouths against the cold. They succeeded in personifying an intimidating and resolute state even as the protesters failed to convincingly constitute its opposite. Of course, it was a cold day and those officers that did obscure parts of their faces could be forgiven for seeking warmth.

In my inspection of the surrounding tools of our repressive state my eye was drawn to the glasses worn by one of the female officers. There were a handful of police adorned with totems of their ocular limitations but these stood out. Whilst the rest were sober and functional these glasses brandished their pedigree. The words “red or dead” careened down each arm in effervescent pink, cursive lettering. I immediately empathised more with this uniformed public servant with garish taste in eye-wear than I did with any member of the protest, which, moments later, kindly reminded all present that “It’ll be your [the police’s] jobs next.” This contradiction that was so excitedly touted by the demonstrators gave me my reason. Life is complex and when described simplistically appears to be full of contradictions. Here stood a group of people facing budget and wage cuts, job losses, and increased pension contributions standing – at least as far as their opponents could discern – with their oppressors against the minute masses. The protesters proved to be unable to distinguish between the individuals, the institutions, and the ideologies with which they disagreed. To them all three were bound together in some inversion of their beloved solidarity.

These individuals so clumsily exercising their democratic rights were immature. Though some appeared young enough for this to be expected; others were not. A handful were significantly older than the police that blocked their way. As children we are faced with monsters on a daily basis. They reside in the stories we are told and then lurk under our beds, in our cupboards, and in dark corners. But despite these shadowy beings we are – for the most part, in this country at least – spared monstrous experiences. As our understanding of the world grows we find it to be a more monstrous place than a childhood in quiet and peaceful suburbs prepares us for. This is the stage of maturity that these protesters appeared to have become locked. They showed no sign of realisation that whilst the world was indeed a more monstrous place than it appeared to many of us as children, the monsters are far fewer. Pain, strife, and injustice do not require evil men to propagate them. They don’t require monsters; simple and comforting narratives do.

I do not accuse the Left more broadly of being trapped in this intellectual adolescence I believe there was a hidden lesson amongst yesterday’s embarrassment. The final chant that I will reproduce went along the lines of: “Scotland, Greece and Spain, the problem is the same.” I suspect that it had a different rhythm for that really was the key and only strength on show from these dissenters but I have successfully remembered the meaning. And I agree with it, though, I suspect, not with its intended meaning. Across Europe, the Left is galvanised at a grass-roots level in a way it hasn’t been since the invasion of Iraq and yet it is in political retreat across the continent. François Hollande is the only major leader of the Left on the rise and his proposed solutions amount to nothing more than tearing up the limited reform that President Sarkozy has succeeded in foisting on France. His source of funding for this expansion of the state? Protectionism and a unilateral assault on high finance. It is not hard for a French socialist to kick against the pricks. Elsewhere the solutions offered by the Left are even poorer. The poorest and most vulnerable in society are under assault and it would appear that it is the Left’s intention to fight. Strike! Occupy! Resist! What that means beyond self-righteous protests remains unclear.


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