When I was 15 I had to write an “extended essay” that would count towards my final grade in English O-level, in the pursuit of which the boys at my school were divided, randomly as far as I recall, into two groups; my lot could choose our own topics, within reason, but the master in charge of the others had decided they needed help finding direction, and decreed that work submitted had to be on the theme of “protest”.
It was 1973, and already the bitter trenchancy of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan’s whining and strumming had lost much of their 1960s sunlit lustre. Nevertheless, many boys, given a free hand, might have proposed a microthesis on popular literary reactions to Vietnam, or consumerism, or some such, in a cocky, waggish spirit, testing authority by being hip and cool. As it was, those in the other class resented being simultaneously patronised and told what to do, and squirrelled out of the rubric as best they could, while the rest of us pitied and jeered at them, and avoided anything trendy like the plague when it came to selecting our own subjects. Alas, the more prescriptively inclined of the two schoolmasters was not being clever; he really thought he was helping to enthuse his charges by tapping into an adolescent whim. The fact that he poisoned it with his authority, as though wearing flares and a cheesecloth shirt he’d bought from Marks & Spencer, was an accidental benefit.
But that man did us all a great service. The fashion for “protest” among the cossetted young back then, in a Britain that felt sad and grim but was still infinitely more comfortable and prosperous than more than half the world, was an insult to black civil rights campaigners in the United States, to the Jarrow marchers, to the veterans of Pershing’s divisions who camped on Capitol Hill during the Depression, indeed to anyone who had been truly up against it and found public demonstration en masse the only counter to being ignored. That the schoolboy’s taste for anti-establishment posing could be so easily contextualised by the establishment taught us circumspection and scepticism, and some humility, tools of academic inquiry more fundamentally useful than the rubber stamp of an English Olevel.
As I write, there are hundreds of people peacefully if annoyingly camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral, and I hope they haven’t turned nasty by the time you read this. If they have it will be because they’ve realised their protest is utterly pointless, and that it has lost its top slot on the news; a bit of violence will restore the ratings. For these are not folk who can’t use a park bench because they’re a bit swarthy, or involuntarily idle workers who can’t feed their children because they are denied the largesse of a heartless government. The truly poor in modern Britain are illegal immigrants with no access to the benefits system; many of the native poor are victims of it, denied personal responsibility and the imperative to betterment by a reliable subsistence handout. But the protesters are mostly not these; they are unthinking anti-capitalist chanters, offended, with some aesthetic justice, by the wealth of bankers who have failed in their duty to us all, but they have no understanding of how the crisis can be contained to common benefit. That is the job of the politicians who have some knowledge of economics and are, after all, terrified of getting it wrong and losing their jobs at the next election. The best thing about democracy is that the right things often get done for the wrong reasons. The protesters’ motivation, beyond anger that things have got harder in a life they’d expected to get ever easier, is simply vanity. They’re on the news; that means they’re doing something important.
But they’re not. If the level of protest becomes inconvenient to a Government whose first concern is its perceived competence in the maintenance of public order, the campers will have to be dispersed with the announcement of some fiscally silly sop that will delay economic recovery, or a new tax on bankers which its victims will all be smart (or well-advised) enough to duck. The protesters can do no good, and might do some harm. Even if they’re stupid enough to think that Conservatives want to enrich the rich and further impoverish the poor, they might reflect that we have a coalition government, and back the Lib-Dem element, because anyone with half a brain can see that Labour’s in pieces on the floor, and contributed much to our current woes when in power (where’s the gold, Gordon? Was it repaid to Moscow at our expense?).These protesters are contributing nothing to our democracy. They should shut up and go home.