Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed
You either shut up or get cut up, they don’t wanna hear about it
It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Tryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feel
Elvis Costello, Radio Radio.
This blog is called Paperback Rioter because it’s a cute pun, but there’s a semi-serious point behind that pun. I don’t do rioting: this blog really is a chronicle of “fear and loathing on the campaign trail”. I write, debate, attend meetings, will be campaigning for AV, go on the occasional march. But I don’t kick in windows or throw fire extinguishers off buildings. That’s not my style.
The reasons why are rather obvious. The right to protest does not equal the right to violence.
Also, violence does not help the cause of the protesters. The usual caveats about opinion polls apply obviously, but of those sampled for Yougov (see p5), 69% say that the violence damaged the protester’s cause, as opposed to only 11% who thought it helped the cause. Three quarters of those surveyed say that violent protest is never acceptable in a democracy. This comes from a survey where 65% sympathised with the demonstration and the majority of whom (52% to 35%) disagree with the government’s policy on tuition fees.
Those minimising or condoning the violence (of which there are quite a few) like to draw attention to the fact that the protests only got so much publicity because of the violence.
This implies that all publicity is good publicity, which is obviously not true. I’ve highlighted in the last paragraph that it probably damaged the cause amongst the general public. This Daily Mail front page about the activities of Labour MPs probably gave a lot of publicity to the Labour Party, but you’d be hard-pushed to say that all this publicity was beneficial:
Having said all that, this violence is understandable. It also isn’t just coming from the usual “rent-a-mobs”. As Laurie Penny observed in her brilliant, must-read Gonzo-style piece on the Millbank violence. This is just one example of many from her piece:
Not all of those smashing through the foyer are in any way kitted out like your standard anarchist black-mask gang. These are kids making it up as they go along. A shy looking girl in a nice tweed coat and bobble hat ducks out of the way of some flying glass, squeaks in fright, but sets her lips determinedly and walks forward, not back, towards the line of riot cops. I see her pull up the neck of her pink polo-neck to hide her face, aping those who have improvised bandanas. She gives the glass under her feet a tentative stomp, and then a firmer one. Crunch, it goes. Crunch.
Which begs the question: why are there angry protests happening now, when in 2003 New Labour tripled university fees to £3000 a year, just two years after their manifesto said that they “will not introduce top-up fees and has legislated against them”?
Some on the right have argued that because now “teh evul Toriez” are in power, the left has reverted to its default position of opposing everything they do. This is slightly paranoid of them, but might contain a grain of truth. New Labour could certainly get away with acts like introducing tuition fees and experience far less dissent from the left than if a Tory government had introduced a similar policy.
The anger is about more than that, though. It’s about 13 years of broken promises from a Labour government. It’s that almost 7 million people voted Liberal Democrat in May, a party who had pledged to scrap fees, and are now going to triple them now in government.
To understand the anger, then, we need to go back to that greatest of moral philosophers, George W. Bush:
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me
It’s not as if scenes like this weren’t foreseen. In April, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats (not to be confused with the Deputy Prime Minister of the same name) said there could be riots in the streets if savage cuts were implemented:
As Johann Hari has written, all that’s changed is that now Clegg is the chief cutter.
It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the Lib Dem betrayal. Clegg has used this opportunity to been able to drop a policy he tried to get rid of last year. After the party rebelled against him and voted to keep its policy of abolishing fees, every Lib Dem MP signed a pledge to abolish fees. It transpires that that the Lib Dems had no intention of keeping in a hung parliament:
[A] secret team of key Lib Dems made clear that, in the event of a hung parliament, the party would not waste political capital defending its manifesto pledge to abolish university tuition fees within six years
A democratic solution has therefore failed, so it’s no great surprise rioters are taking to the streets. We now need another democratic solution: backing the right to recall (another Lib Dem policy).
This would mean that MPs who break promises or are found guilty of impropriety would be vulnerable to a constituency petition. If ten per cent of constituents sign that petition, then that MP would face an immediate by-election.