The Great British Riot

Blog #1

I cut my political teeth on demonstrations. Within 6 weeks of going to University I was occupying the administration building, demanding that the University sell its South African investments. Following that I was elected to student Council and learned to take part in committees and contribute to often heated debate. But always marches and demonstrations, from tiny student grant marches to CND and, of course, Iraq. For so many of my generation, this has been the way of expressing political views.

But this is not the way it is these days. Walking with Matthew the other day I sounded off on the uselessness of social media posturing. I suggested that we have a generation who think that spending two minutes signing an online petition or just a few seconds clicking like on Facebook is the equivalent of getting involved in protest and democratic activism. He countered with his standard debating counter – does it do any harm? It may not do a great deal of good, but it surely does no harm so is essentially not worthy of censure.

And it is hard to disagree. We live in the shadow of the Iraq war demonstrations. We all thought that gathering together the largest demonstration - possibly ever – in protest at our planned involvement in the Iraq adventure would have had an effect. And yet it didn’t. In the end a million people on the street had just as much impact as re-tweeting Je Suis Charlie….  

I have been reading a fun little book about the Cheese Riots in Nottingham – favourite quote ‘Be damned with your charity, we’ll have the cheese for naught!’ It also looks at the riots surrounding the rejection of the Reform Act some 40 years later. It reminded me that the riot has always been the traditional British form of direct action, the mechanism in which we have told governments what is and is not acceptable. The demonstrations surrounding the Reform Acts were enormous by any standards, and many did end in violence. Interestingly the recent (well relatively) demonstrations that were successful in changing Government’s mind were those against the Poll Tax, which were far smaller than Iraq, but more violent and disruptive. Distressingly I do wonder if we had been more vandalistic, less responsibly liberal, we might have had more impact?

Nonetheless, if I were in Government, it does seem to me that I would be less discomforted fielding an online petition of 100,000 signatures, rather than 100,000 people on the street, peaceably or not. I think politicians have tried to give us the idea they are terrified about pressure exhibited on social media when they really are not; it simply deflects anger into a containable format. Noble though the organisers of Change-it and similar websites may be, I think a government overseeing a massive crackdown on the poor of this country is highly comfortable to see protest funnelled into such passive protest. It is a long time now since our leaders had to face the full impact of massive numbers of the populace on the street making their presence felt.

The big demonstrations are the successors of the great British tradition of riot. And despite the overwhelming force which pre-democratic states could employ against a localised uprising of the poor (or the middle classes), riots on the whole have succeeded.

I find it slightly astonishing that the mighty Tories of the 19th century, with their upper class confidence that they really were next to God, were eventually cowed by the masses and forced to concede, time after time after time, and yet the ranks of New Labour socialist democrats felt entirely able to ignore their core support as it marched endlessly down Whitehall. So I may as well just like this facebook page about benefits sanctions…..


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