Some thoughts on 26 March

Yesterday saw one of the largest protest marches in London in modern times against the Coalitions cuts in public services – and incidents at Fortnum and Mason and Trafalgar Square which are being portrayed as acts of gratuitous violence by a minority of anarchists and troublemakers.  Predictably enough, most of the British media are leading on the second group.

Here are a few random thoughts:

  • Following the main march the Coalition should be very afraid – nearly half a million people marched in London on Saturday.  I would have been one of them had it not been for a family illness.  As journalist Paul Mason points out in an excellent piece for the BBC (not an organisation that covered themselves in glory yesterday – see below) this was emphatically not the usual suspects.  This was a demonstration, Mason writes, whose sheer size and breadth should give the coalition pause for thought.  The cuts have yet to take effect in many cases, and in others, such as those related to incapacity benefitl, appear to be being implemented with considerable brutality and incompetence.  And people are realising that despite Cameron’s assurances before the election, the NHS is being privatised. Resistance is creating a new coalition.
  • The media coverage – most notably from the BBC – was utterly disgraceful – at home watching the BBC’s rolling news coverage, it was obvious that journalists were salivating to be able to report violence.  There is something very disturbing about the gung-ho egotism of the BBC correspondent on the ground, and in this case it was Tim Willcocks, running around London displaying his ignorance, who was the chief offender.  The BBC agenda became all too clear when their reporter in the Metropolitan Police control centre kept badgering the operation commander to talk about the threat of violence.  And as soon as skirmishes broke out in Oxford Street, the BBC News Channel switched straight from Ed Miliband’s speech and stayed there.  Nearly half a million marched but the BBC’s sole interest was in the minority.  I’m no fan of conspiracy theories, but I believe the Coalition has a powerful interest in ensuring that the activities of a minority who can be represented as violent hog the headlines at the expense of the half-million who marched.  We know that early in the coalition the BBC was called in to No 10 to discuss its coverage of the cuts, and we know that the Coalition’s closeness to Murdoch is perceived (rightly) by the BBC as a threat.  I would like to think that yesterday’s failures at the BBC were due more to incompetence and a consensual mindset than a conscious response to political pressure – but watching their coverage leads me to think otherwise.
  • The police response to the Fortnum and Mason occupation was a disgrace – the UK Uncut protesters inside Fortnum’s were peaceful.  Whatever may have happened outside, photographs published on social media show people inside reciting poetry, juggling, playing pictionary and knitting.  And it’s not surprising – UK Uncut have never been violent.  Beyond minor damage to property (e.g. protesters gluing themselves to shop windows) and the inconvenience they cause to tax-dodging retailers, they have done nothing which could be construed as criminal, as this video of the occupation (from about 1’10”) shows.  The comparison with Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson’s Bullingdon Club – rich kids at Oxford smashing up restaurants for fun –  is instructive.  Moreover UK Uncut’s  actions always attract widespread support from passers-by.  To offer them the opportunity to leave and then kettle them outside the store and arrest them one by one for aggravated trespass was a disgraceful tactic. At the time of writing there have been no charges but it’s quite difficult to see how they could stick – the prosecution would need to prove intent to obstruct or intimidate in each case – so the police action looks like an act of simple intimidation of peaceful and popular protestors.  For those who are seeking an agenda it’s easy to find.
  • Kettling is an aggressive and political action, not a means of crowd control – the sensible way to deal with a large crowd is to allow it to disperse.  Kettling is always going to increase tension and provoke a reaction – and, once again, it is an act of intimidation.  It is indiscriminate and in a public place is likely to be a form of collective punishment in which people are deprived of liberty simply for the offence of being in a public place. There is currently a case before the ECHR which could see the tactic ruled illegal, leaving the Met to field the litigation from an overtly political tactic.

My main conclusion is very simple – the Coalition, the bankers, the tax avoiders, the media and the private sector companies looking to carve up the NHS and social provision needed the march to be overshadowed by reports of violence.  It was always going to happen.  And one thing that the Left must avoid is getting into mutual recriminations about “legitimate” protest.  We may not like what some people did in the streets of London yesterday, but the moment we start using the language of condemnation we’re playing Cameron’s game.


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