Historical Notes: People who refuse to believe in `never'

STUDY ANY paper any day and it will be full of cries of protest - in the news columns, letters to the editor or articles by columnists. Protest makes news - but do protest movements help to change the world? Are the wicked heresies of today destined to become, as the British political philosopher Harold Laski once observed, the sober commonplaces of tomorrow?

Any study of the history of protest in the 20th century suggests that they are. Within my own adult lifetime, the Soviet tyranny in East Europe and apartheid in South Africa have been overthrown, segregation in the United States has been outlawed, women have been liberated, censorship and capital punishment abolished and homosexuality between consenting adults is no longer a crime. They were all brave causes and such "wicked" heretics as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, Arthur Koestler, Penguin Books and Peter Wildeblood feature prominently on the roll of honour.

John Osborne's Jimmy Porter raged in Look Back in Anger in 1956 that there were no good, brave causes left. There were and there always are. Some - poverty and the use of child labour - are enduring causes of protest raised to a higher level or suffered in different countries. Others are new - oppression in Kosovo or East Timor, saving the environment, the power of global corporations.

And The Independent's Breadline Britain campaign joins a long 20th-century tradition. Ninety-seven years ago Seebohm Rowntree was showing that the average wage for a York labourer was from 18 shillings to 21 shillings when the minimum budget required to feed a family of two adults and three children was 21s 8d. "If adequate nourishment be necessary to efficiency, the highest commercial success will be impossible so long as large numbers even of the most sober and industrious of the labouring classes receive but four-fifths of the necessary amount of food," he wrote in his classic study Poverty.

Two years later Jack London exposed the condition of the East End of London in The People of the Abyss: "There are 40 million of the English folk and 939 out of every 1,000 of them die in poverty, while a constant army of eight million struggles on the ragged edge of starvation." Soon afterwards Beatrice Webb was exposing the conditions created by the Poor Law in municipal workhouses in her minority report to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws.

With her husband Sidney, Beatrice Webb had already founded the London School of Economics. One of its directors was William Beveridge and it was the Beveridge Report of 1942, exposing the six "giant evils" of want, squalor, disease, ignorance, idleness and war, which inspired the Welfare State created by the Labour government of l940. There is a direct line from Rowntree, Webb and Beveridge to Frank Field, the Church of England's Faith in the City and The Independent's Breadline Britain.

When they set out to change the world, most protesters are dismissed as nuisances, cranks or dangerous threats to the status quo. Some were considered so dangerous that they were assassinated (Gandhi, Trotsky, Kennedy, Martin Luther King). Some were imprisoned (Mandela, Vaclav Havel). Solzhenitsyn was exiled, Steve Biko beaten to death. Even in Stalin's gulags, men and women made their mental notes for posterity.

"For years," Martin Luther King wrote from Birmingham Jail, "I have heard the word `wait'. It rings in the ear of every negro with piercing familiarity. This `wait' has almost always meant `never'. It is the men and women who refuse to believe in `never' who change the human lot - and who lit the candle for those who protest today."

Brian MacArthur is editor of `The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Protest' (Viking, pounds 20)