Joan Smith: Time for Occupy to pack up its tents and go

When I heard yesterday that another court had ruled against the Occupy London protest outside St Paul's cathedral, I had to think for a moment. After dominating headlines for weeks last autumn, the camp hasn't been in the news much lately and I'd almost forgotten it was still there.

It isn't that the economic crisis has gone away, but a raft of other stories has seized our attention, including much more ferocious protests against austerity measures in Greece. When some 20,000 homeless people are sleeping on the streets of Athens, the impact of a mostly voluntary encampment in another country – I know some homeless people are there as well – is inevitably reduced.

The Occupy London camp faces being dismantled after yesterday's appeal court ruling that the protesters cannot challenge an earlier eviction order. I'm sure the protesters and their supporters are angry about the decision, but I'm not at all clear what would be achieved by remaining in situ. Despite the elevated rhetoric that accompanied the setting up of the camp, its main impact was always symbolic – and that's lessening by the day.

Occupy London struck a chord because it seized attention at a moment when popular anger towards bankers, politicians and financial institutions was white-hot. The removal of Fred Goodwin's knighthood was a belated acknowledgement of a public mood that has long wanted to see individuals suffer for the financial anxiety people currently feel, whether they fear losing their own jobs and or see school-leavers unable to find one. But such gestures are problematic, producing a spasm of satisfaction which quickly dissipates.

For many of its supporters, I suspect, Occupy London represented exactly that feeling that something was wrong and somebody ought to do something about it. It gave their anger and anxiety a focus, temporarily dispelling the powerlessness individuals feel in the middle of a huge financial crisis. I was struck by tweets from camps around the country which showed a sense of real community emerging; when people are fed up and broke, everyday life in a camp – setting up cleaning rotas, deciding what to eat, explaining the ropes to new members – has a very high feel-good factor.

Direct action is a great way to grab headlines and popularise slogans, which Occupy did very successfully. But it has its limits, and in this country the movement came up against them some time ago.

Other world events have taken over the headlines, while a growing popular movement against the Government's ill-conceived NHS reforms has come to the fore in the UK. One of the most important lessons in politics is knowing when to go graciously.

Comments