Why Aren't British People Rioting in the Streets Against Austerity?
There definitely seem to be fewer Molotovs than at the protests across southern Europe.
Protesters form into a black bloc
Besides a couple of pretty docile marches, public resistance to austerity in the UK has been incredibly weak.
While the rest of Europe continue to set fire to their sinuses with tear gas and smash up their cities in frustration, we have George Osborne sashaying past protesters outside the Conservative Party conference to introduce whole new rounds of even deeper cuts to a mass of hoorahing Tory pigmen. Yes, the occasional verbose Hollywood celebrity has been on TV to ramble on about revolution, but Russell Brand is not the next Wat Tyler.
The weird thing is, it's not as if our politicians aren't asking for a kicking. At times they seem so impossibly and grotesquely out of touch that you start to wonder whether they're trying to put Steve Bell and Ralph Steadman out of work, too.
The most recent example of this came when Daniel Kawczynski – Tory MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, and a man who claimed 72 first class rail tickets on expenses in one year – told a one-legged beggar to get a job. "Yes, I know it's hard," he said. "I struggled, too." Which was presumably either a reference to the time the tuck shop at his Surrey boarding school ran out of Wham bars, or a grumble about all those highly paid consultancy jobs he's had to undertake while representing his constituency.
In terms of negative PR, it's about as bad as you can get, but it's not an isolated incident. We have seen over a thousand people die in a single year after being declared "fit to work" by government-employed disability means-testers Atos. We have seen a Tory MP file an expenses claim for a £1,600 duck house. And yet the only non-mainstream political opposition that seems to have been mustered thus far is the People’s Assembly – an organisation fronted by professional left-wing-opinion-haver Owen Jones, Trigger from Only Fools and Horses and others who marshalled that highly successful resistance to the invasion of Iraq back in 2003.
You can't blame people for trying, but why are we so subdued when it comes to rising up against the powers that be? Historically, this question has been answered with the platitude that the British just "aren’t very rebellious" – that we're innately incapable of expressing political anger. Anti-establishment politics in Bulgaria means holding your politicians hostage; in Britain, it involves watching Nigel Farage on Question Time and occasionally tweeting in agreement with what he has to say.
That said, archive footage from the Poll Tax Riots and the miners' strike – plus the occasional black bloc in recent years – tells me that Britain does actually hold a candle for rebellion. I wanted to find out whether the current relative lack of radical action against unpopular government policy can really be explained through lazy cliches, or if something more complex is at play. So I spoke to some people who know a fair bit about this kind of thing.
The first was Paul Mason, ex-BBC economics editor and current Culture and Digital Editor at Channel 4 News. He also wrote two books – Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere and Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere – in an attempt to explain (you may have already guessed from the titles) why exactly it's been kicking off everywhere.
When I asked Mason why it hasn't been kicking off quite so much in the UK, he told me, "You can more or less draw a line through Europe between countries that have gone into deep depression-style austerity – where you see big social movements – and everything above that where there hasn't been that catastrophic level of austerity. I would have to put Britain in that second group."
But, according to Mason, the fact that Britain's austerity experience has been relatively mild so far still doesn't mean we're in the clear. "The context is that the austerity programme is ‘back-loaded’ so that the pain comes at the end," Mason explained. "It may even come under the next government, whoever that may be."
It's not only that cuts in the UK have been less drastic than elsewhere in Europe, the bitter pill has also been fed to us by a team of quacks who have become experts in passing the buck, consolidating some of the anger against the ruling government and placing it elsewhere. As Michael McTernan from left-wing think tank Policy Network suggested, "The government has been extremely successful in terms of how they have framed the crisis – mislaying the blame for the austerity firmly at the door of Labour’s profligacy when they were in government."
Students attacking the Tory HQ at Millbank in 2010 – one of the only times in recent memory the British have expressed political anger like protesters in southern Europe.
However, let's assume you're not one of those drones who buys into Tory propaganda. That you're one of society's enlightened and aware who can see that – regardless of who started the problem – the onus falls on whoever's in power to sort that problem out. Unlike everyone else, you've realised this and you want to kick off about it. The only problem is, you can't – the police are watching your every step, then preventing you from actually stepping anywhere by trapping you in a kettle until the only thing you care about is your throbbing bladder.
Where Greek, Spanish and Turkish police keep the party going by violently clashing with protesters, supplementing their outrage with every baton charge and barrage of flash-bangs, British cops have worked out that kettling is generally a much more efficient way to dissuade people from demonstrating. I mean, the prospect of being trapped in an enclosed area for hours somehow doesn't sound quite as electrifying as pulling on a balaclava and hurling homemade Molotovs into a surging phalanx of screaming riot police.
Sam Walton from the Network for Police Monitoring pointed out that cops in the UK don't just stop at tedium. They also employ tactics to subdue any uprising before it gets to the point where police have to fence in protesters for an entire afternoon.
"While it’s true that British police don’t have the rubber bullets and water cannons that they have on the continent – although it looks like this stuff might be coming in here – I think it’s fair to say that they’re a bit more Machiavellian," Walton told me. "They seek to systematically undermine the organisation of the protest rather than simply dealing with it. The biggest smoking gun was Mark Kennedy – he was infiltrating protest groups for years and years. There’s this pervasive intelligence gathering, which other countries don’t do nearly as much."
As subtly effective as British policing is, the fact remains that people in other countries are forced to put up with extreme police violence – including the very real possibility of being killed during demonstrations – but still manage to maintain a much more vibrant protest culture. That, perhaps, is because our left is structurally more inclined to move people away from the black bloc and into placard-waving, family-friendly march territory.
Police kettling anti-fascist protesters in London
As Paul Mason told me, "We have a large, traditional, quite moderate left. Funded by the unions, the Labour Party does what it's done since it was invented, which is to focus their opposition and anger towards parliamentary and legislative action. Labour's existence always has done that, and it’s one of the things that contributes to people seeing protest as effectively passive, stagey, one-off events."
Because they seem to be the only legitimate option left-leaning UK citizens have, Labour have managed to keep a monopoly over the hearts and minds of those who hate the Tories. But unlike other left-wing parties in Europe that support the concept of protest, Labour's only tactic seems to be twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the day that they get to vote Ed Miliband into Number 10 – where, incidentally, he says he won't reverse any cuts.
And not only is the mainstream left pretty moderate, but it also has no time for those who want to raise the temperature. Tim Hunt, who contributes to left-wing magazine Red Pepper, told me that, "There's a lack of solidarity between groups," citing the example of when UK Uncut and a number of anarchists occupied Fortnum and Masons after a TUC march in 2011. "The TUC were really quick to hold a press conference with the police to condemn the actions of those who didn't stick to the route march it had planned for its members," Hunt explained. "In other countries, those representing organised labour would have called a strike in solidarity with those taking more direct action."
Although, as Tim would point out, the left can't just resort to blame shifting. He wrote for Adbusters that, “Britain reels from a lack of creative left. We need some hope, some inspiration, something that shakes us out of this dismally predictable downward spiral." Expanding on that idea, he told me that, "We’re in a position of absolute defeat at the moment; people are always mobilising for actions and never movement-building. No one has a plan. It’s all very Situationist. It’s, 'Let’s create this spectacle,' but it doesn’t fit into a wider strategy or context. There’s no idea of where you want to be at the end of an action."
A fiery student demo in London, December 2012
Judith, an activist from Spain who now lives in Manchester, shares Tim's opinion: "I’m always confused about how things work in the UK," she said. "There's always your march, there’s always your black bloc, there are boring speeches by unions at the end, you hope there’ll be some damage, maybe – because that's exciting – and you hope that there’s a chance it might go differently to last time. That’s where it all stops."
A formulaic protest culture in the UK seems to have sucked the heart out of getting in the government's face to have your demands heard. As Sarah – a Portuguese activist who lives in the UK and has been to demonstrations in France and Brazil – told me, "It just feels like there’s less passion in the British culture of activism, and that the most energetic moments happen when there's confrontation."
Judith also added that, "The UK scene is much more cliquey – there’s this idea of the professional activist, which is a bit alienating for people who haven't grown up in an activist environment. [According to the 'professional activists'], you either come to everything or you’re no good."
The idea of an activist elite was a problem identified by Give Up Activism, a text written following a "Carnival Against Capitalism" held in the City of London in 1999 – a carnival that turned into an afternoon of window smashing and cop clashing.
Critical of how being an activist had become a "role", it said, "The supposedly revolutionary activity of the activist is a dull and sterile routine – a constant repetition of a few actions with no potential for change… Indeed revolution, or even any real moves in that direction, would profoundly upset activists by depriving them of their role. If everyone is becoming revolutionary then you’re not so special any more, are you?"
An anarchist having a gentle stroll through central London
According to Jim Clarke, who writes for the libertarian-communist (AKA anarchist) website libcom.org, debates around the 2005 G8 conference in Gleneagles saw increasing numbers of anarchists sympathising with Give Up Activism. They decided, he said, that travelling all the way up to rural Perthshire to inevitably get arrested for screaming at a line of cops a mile away from a conference centre probably wouldn't achieve much in the way of smashing capitalism to pieces.
And it seems that the Give Up Activism approach is contagious; instead of working out their brick-hurling arm, a large section of this generation's would-be troublemakers are instead trying to radicalise their mates and give their bosses some sleepless nights with community-organising schemes and trade union activity.
Even with all that in mind, you could of course argue that, while it hasn't been quite as dramatic as in the rest of Europe, the British have had their moments over the past few years. In 2010, students smashed up the Tory Party HQ and people genuinely – albeit briefly – wondered if it might set something off that would derail the coalition government. The summer riots of the following year scored a strong ten for chaos, even if they did lack political direction; that big trade union march in 2011 got pretty rowdy, and we've even got our very own branch of left-wing political terrorists: the Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI), who have been marauding around the West Country, torching police shooting ranges and UK Border Agency vehicles.
But the FAI isn't going to start a revolution, and the riots and student protests fizzled out as quickly as they started. It seems that, even though the British have just as much potential to kick off as anyone else, we also have some of the most inadequate, tame protest infrastructure in the whole of Europe – all kept in check with a subtly coercive system that knows exactly how to keep things ticking over just the way they are.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonChilds13
Stories from places that riot more than the UK:
WATCH – Teenage Riot: Athens