Sunday, 30 January 2011

Protest! The song remains the same?

In London and Manchester yesterday, the 28th January there were large marches against the rise in tuition fees and the cuts the coalition government is imposing on Britain. These are just the latest in a series of protests and ther are many more to come. But! Are we seeing a new age of protest? Is there anything new about them? Will they have any effect?

The people have been protesting, and rebelling, against the forces of authority and oppression since ancient times. In Britain alone we learn of the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, the enclosure riots of the 16th century, the English Civil War, Peterloo, the Suffragettes, the Jarrow March, and the Poll Tax Riot to name but a few.

France had its revolution in the late 18th cnetury, followed swiftly by the Americans, then in the mid-19th century there were a series of uprisings especially in 1848. Other parts of the world have also experienced their own revolutions, and protests. So protesting is an essential element as people try to make themselves heard, and even overthrow their governments.

For the modern generation, the first experience, albeit second hand for most Britons, is the movement that swept away the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989. These tapped into a changing mood, and, with the exception of Romania, seem to have been largely peaceful. The revolution however, was only possible because the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had indicated that they would not intervene, if the people rose up against their imposed governments. South Africa's change was of a different nature, having built up over a long period of time, international sanctions playing a part, and the government eventually deciding on a peaceful handover themselves.

So the protests of the early 21st century are following a long tradition, but is there anything different about them in any significant respect? Technology is playing a big part, the ability to email, tweet and text to organise protests has enabled fairly rapid organisation, and relaying of information. This is then enhanced by using the internet and social networking sites such as facebook and twitter to keep people updated on events.

In 2008 Barack Obama's campaign made very good use of technology to organise, and now it is being used in Egypt as the people rise up to try and oust Mubarak who has been in charge for thirty years. The authorities fear of technological advances being used is such that they have cut off internet links, and blocked mobile networks. The Egyptian uprising is inspired by the forcing out of Tunisia's long-serving leader Ben Ali, and it has similarly inspired the same in Sudan.

Egypt and Sudan's are youth led, in a way reminiscent of Europe's 1848 movements (Young Turks,Young French etc.), and it is reported today that a group calling itself 'Youth for Change' is protesting in Khartoum. It seems that there is now a sweeping movement across the North African/Arabian border states, and it will be very interesting to see if other states such as Algeria and Libya get caught up.

In the wake of the financial crisis, nobody has escaped the effects, with Britain suffering especially badly of the major industrialised countries. There are many arguments as regards the reasons for this, which will be argued about for generations to come. However, what Britain does have is a government that believes drastic cuts are needed to pay off the deficit by 2014.

As a result a number of measures have been taken, which will come into effect over the coming years. There are two main areas affected by the government's policies, public services and universities (including further education), as well as a rise in VAT, which is regressive. many jobs are going to be lost in the near future, many in the public services, but private companies, especially those who work closely with the public sector, are also going to feel the pinch. The government is hoping the private sector will be able to fill the gap in services and employment, but unless the current downturn turns out to be a blip, that could well turn out to be a false premise.

The rise in tuition fees, and the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance has caused the first stirrings, as students all over the country have marched against them. Although teachers, lecturers and parents have joined in as support, it is the youth who have been the drivers of these protests. The irony of the part played by university students, is that they will not be liable for the rises in tuition fees, but they feel as though they are playing a part on behalf of future students. Many of these are those currently in their first year of A level courses, who have had their maintenance allowance abolished, with nothing, as yet, to replace it. But this is what links these protests with those in Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan, that it is the next generation leading them, and not the forces of the past.

Public sector strikes could be the next move, but those who will be losing their jobs are now beginning to join with the young protesters to make their opinions known. and although the unions will play a part in organising these, it is new movements such as UK uncut, led by Aaron Peter's, that are the driving force.

As said technology has played a big part in the organising of these protests, and the ability of participants to quickly disperse information, means that we can all follow what is happening. There are many more protests planned over the coming months, as the unions and others join in, as the cuts begin in earnest.

We therefore come to our first question, are we seeing a new age of protest? The answer to that, in reality, is no. Protest has been an integral part of society in one form or another since the polis came into existence, and almost certainly long before then. Whatever the changes in organisation and information dispersal, they are the continuation of a long tradition when people feel they are being treated unfairly by government, whether that is true or just a perception. The cuts, and policies, are affecting people and they feel that this is the only way to make themselves heard.

The second question is there anything new about them? Again I have to say no, because as in many ways all the great revolutions, the current protest movements all over the world, are driven by a similar imperitive, the failure of the old politics. Whether it is the ancien regimes of France in 1789 and Britain in 1642 and 1776, apartheid in South Africa, Communism in Eastern Europe, or the political system in Britain western Europe, or North Africa and Arabia. It is this failure that is seen as the reasons behind the high unemployment and economic difficulties facing people all over the world, and their seeming unwillingness to deal with the root causes.

For many years now, certainly in Britain, political participation has been falling, and people have become more engaged through other mediums such as the green movement, or the National Trust, it is through civil society that people have expressed themselves. Turnout in General Elections has also fallen, as the electorate feel as though the parties, and their representatives do not actually really understand the issues they face in their lives.

The expenses scandal brought this to a head, as it seemed to confirm what many have believed for years, that politicians are only out for themselves. They also feel, with some justification, that those they elect to represent them in parliament, have very little real experience of ordinary life, with millionaires in government telling them "we're all sharing the pain," or leaders of other parties that have done little else but politics. There seem to be very few who have similar backgrounds to those that voted for them, and even fewer seeming to reach the upper echelons, then if they do, as with Alan Johnson, are dismissed as 'postie,' as though his having had what many would consider a real job, and makes it appear that the ordinary person in the street is considered less important, and that their experiences have nothing to tell the policiticians.

So we come to the most important question, will they have any effect? History already tells us the results of many past revolutions, whether successful or not. The Tunisian regime has fallen, and Egypt seems to be on the cusp of a new age, but both these country's rulers were long standing, and their positions were long regarded as undemocratic, as even when elections were held, they weren't regarded as free or fair. When the people rebelled, and decided that change was needed, they had a common target, as the regimes had lost the support and trust of the people, and the armies decided not to intervene on behalf of the authorities.

The protesters in Britain face a different set of problems, as the government is freely elected, and because the facility exists to punish them through the ballot box, a revolution of the sort in Tunisia (or even Britain in the 17th century) is highly unlikely. But that doesn't make the protests invaluable, or that they will not affect policy.

In 1990 the Poll Tax riots were not responsible alone for Margaret Thatcher's removal from office. They were an expression of great unhappiness with one element of government policy, but that was just representative of a government, and leader seen to have lost touch, and it became apparent that if Mrs. Thatcher remained in place the Conservatives would almost certainly lose the next election. Margaret Thatcher was therefore replaced by John Major nine months later, and the Conservatives managed to win the subsequent election in 1992.

The current protests are occurring very soon into the new government's term, and are going to get more frequent as economic pressures and policies combine to affect the people of Britain. The government is a coalition, and many in the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats, are less then happy about the policies the government is enacting. In the polls at the moment it is the Liberal Democrats taking the hit, and if they do very badly in May's local elections, pressure will be brought to bear on the party's MPs. There may even be calls in some quarters for them to withdraw from the coalition, though highly unlikely at this stage.

The Conservatives are not immune from this, and if the economic situation continues to worsen, the pressure to change direction will be immense. A poor performance by the Tories in May, especially if they are almost wiped out in the Scottish and Welsh elections, and David Cameron will come under internal pressure to make changes in policy. At the moment the government is resisting all calls to alter course, and lessen the impact of the cuts, saying they are necessary to restore faith in public finances. But if things do not begin to improve measurably for ordinary people quite quickly, then they could find themselves facing a similar situation to the government in 1990.

Overall then, the new wave of protests at home and abroad are nothing new, and even the reasons are very much the same. Unemployment, or fear of it, economic difficulties, leaders out of touch with the ordinary man and woman in the street, and that the politicians are only concerned with their own comforts.

The real difference is that new technology enables mass protest to be organised quickly, and that those all over the world can follow eventsw as they happen. The twenty-four hour media allows us to see the pictures, whilst we read the thoughts of those involved, and gain a wider understanding of what is happening.

So although the reasons for mass protests remain the same, it is the way they are organised that makes them different. The ability to cross boundaries, and to relay information, and therefore the authorities ability to control the dispersal of that information is restricted.

When I was on the December 9th protest in London, I was able to provide a running commentary on my phone, and today's events were relayed on twitter, and we were able to see instance photographs of protesters being pepper sprayed. At this moment I have twenty-four hour news on, and can watch the situation in Egypt unfold before my eyes.

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