Focus: Oi! Tally-ho! The rise of the raging classes

Protest used to mean crowds of chanting comrades on the march. Now it means posh blood-sports enthusiasts splattered with gore, chums of royalty storming the House of Commons and fathers in fancy dress. Brian Cathcart on the new rebels who scorn old-style mass demos for personal stunts and direct action instead
Click to follow

At least one million people marched through London last year to oppose the invasion of Iraq. It was the biggest political demonstration in the history of the United Kingdom. I have wondered ever since why we bothered.

At least one million people marched through London last year to oppose the invasion of Iraq. It was the biggest political demonstration in the history of the United Kingdom. I have wondered ever since why we bothered.

For all its historic scale the protest changed nothing. After a few patronising words from Mr Blair it was quickly forgotten, and he went right ahead with his war. How much smarter, then, are the white-shirted toffs who sneaked into the Commons last Wednesday afternoon and were wrestled to the floor by silk-stockinged men with swords.

There was just a handful of protesters and they captured the headlines for days, humiliated ministers, and made the political establishment look like a bunch of hysterical old hens. The hunting Bill may still go through, but few would deny that its credibility has also been damaged.

Among them were Otis Ferry, a master of hounds and son of the rock star Bryan Ferry; Luke Tomlinson, childhood friend of princes William and Harry; Robert Thame, who plays polo alongside the princes in the Highgrove team; and Nick Wood, a former royal chef. They say it took them little more than 24 hours and a few mobile phone calls to set up the coup, but for all that their actions brings a new level of refinement to what the left used to call non-violent direct action.

Now factor in last week's Batman stunt at Buckingham Palace (which probably took a bit more preparation) and it is clear that the art of protest is changing.

Why would anyone bother now with an old-fashioned demo? To make your point today, take a leaf from the marketing and advertising PR textbooks. Aim for maximum media impact, try not to risk anyone's skin but your own - and show a bit of wit. There is nothing so subversive.

I'll bet that even the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens sniggered privately last week as he watched Batman waving from the Queen's balcony and then heard Peter Hain doing his Lady Bracknell impression. How could he not?

But it is not just the form of protest that has altered, it's the people doing it. The mild folk who marched so fruitlessly against the war last year were largely drawn from the traditional protesting classes: students, minorities, alternatives, lefties, liberals and a good few 1960s and 1970s throwbacks.

Since time beyond memory these groups have taken to the streets, caused the occasional fracas and been mocked and lambasted for it in the court of public opinion, with the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph leading the abuse. They have been tamed by the experience, and it shows.

Not so the New Angry. The country types and polo players are mad as hell and they don't care who knows it, old chap. The aggrieved men of Fathers-4-Justice could hardly be more driven and determined. And cast your mind back to the fuel protests of 2000 and the furious lorry drivers and farmers, with their blockades and slow convoys. These people have no lingering regard for May '68 and Che Guevara; they traditionally despise protests and protesters. Many of them read and enjoy the Mail and the Telegraph. Now, often to their own surprise, they are shouting and raging (and getting two cheers from their newspapers for doing so).

It would be nice to say that the boot is simply on the other foot, that the uncaring "haves" of the Thatcher years are finally getting their come-uppance, but of course that is not the case. The people who went on last year's Stop the War march, and a great many others on the left, aren't getting what they want either. This is all about impotence. Some of us are used to it and some of us are not.

Back in 1997 New Labour people used to talk a lot about doing away with the old politics. In unexpected ways they have succeeded. So utterly does Labour bestride the middle ground of politics today that it is almost impossible to imagine it losing the next election. Or to put it another way, so squeezed is the Conservative Party on the right that it is actually finding itself popping up to the left of Labour on some issues.

Labour's middle-ground politics are crafted in the focus groups, those gatherings of don't-knows, swing voters and the simply bewildered whose collective choices are thought to be decisive at general election time.

This may all be wonderful if you are a don't-know, your want of opinion and lack of conviction being constantly reflected in government policy, but it is hopelessly barren and empty for those who do know or who believe in something, whether "old" or "new".

Such are the people on the streets now. If the followers of the Countryside Alliance had any reasonable hope that by voting Conservative or Liberal Democrat or anything else they might remove the Government from office at the next election, they would probably be out there canvassing today instead of causing trouble on the streets of Westminster.

If the hardline wing of the divorced fathers' movement (setting aside the prison population, can you imagine a previously less fashionable group of people?) thought that conventional parliamentary politics offered any prospect for advancing their cause, the police would not have to fetch them off tall buildings with ladders every other day.

The old left is used to impotence. Think of the Chartists, the Jarrow March, the Aldermaston marches. I remember standing in Fleet Street as the miners marched by beneath their union banners chanting, "Margaret Thatcher's got one, Ian McGregor is one ..." At the time they were all but starving their families and themselves to make their point, and look what happened to them.

But for the new angry people, be they lorry drivers with mortgages or old Etonian bloodstock agents, it's a novel experience being unable to have your voice heard. In different ways they have long believed that it's their sort that runs the country. And not for them the indignity and futility of the demo; they have brought something fancy and new to the business of protest. So, galling as it is to see the Daily Mail finally sympathising with somebody who has been thumped by the police ("... ordinary people driven to extraordinary measures to defend their right to uphold a British tradition ..."), I welcome this.

I don't care for hunting. I believe petrol is too cheap. I have no way of knowing whether those men in superhero costumes should have more access to their children. But when conventional politics are as rigid and constipated as they are today it has to be a good thing to have people protesting about what makes them angry, and getting themselves noticed for it.

Is it going too far? There is a lot of headmasterly talk about how sooner or later somebody will get hurt, and about the desecration of democratic institutions, but it doesn't wash. Those who are complaining are the people who are being forced to hear things they don't want to hear.

This is not about the IRA, deliberately killing innocent people, and still less is it about Osama bin Laden, though efforts have been made to drag him into it. Nor does it bear any relation to the animal rights extremists and their sinister strategies of violence and intimidation.

This is about nothing more than eye-catching stunts which make a point. How do we tell the difference? In other words, how, in a fretful world, can the protester be distinguished from the terrorist? There is a fairly simple, if brutal test: anyone intent on courting public sympathy and staying alive throughout the process will not risk any confusion. It is hard to imagine a suicide bomber attempting to scale the walls of Buckingham Palace while wearing a baggy superhero costume that sags around the groin.

If our political leaders don't like what's happening they have it in their power to be useful. Democratic politics should have room for people with strong feelings and should enable them to believe in the possibility of change.

Postal ballots may be one way of getting more people to cast their vote, but so is engaging with people who feel so angry and impotent they will risk arrest and imprisonment to make their point.


Matt O'Connor, PR consultant, founder of Fathers 4 Justice, 37

The spark came at the last hearing I had at the family court. I couldn't take the process any more and I was drifting from my children. I had a howling row with the judge. My ex-wife and I managed to sort things out and I now see my children when I want, but I don't think that would be so if we had continued to play the game.

I am prepared to go to prison. When the democratic process isn't working, when the state is failing you, there is no alternative other than to break the law.

My rationalisation of that is the basic right to be a father. I started it, I have to see it through. Twenty-two people are facing trial because of our protests, including two mothers. Sacrifice is part of life - you have to risk life, limb and liberty in pursuit of equality.


Lord Mancroft, member of the Beaufort Hunt, 47

The rule of law only works if people respect laws, and they only respect them if they are passed in a just and fair way. Historically it is the duty of moral men to oppose unjust laws by breaking them and offering themselves up for punishment. I will have a very difficult decision to make should it come to a choice to hunt or not under a ban. Having said that, I have just bought a new hunting coat and I intend to wear it for the next 15 years.

People aren't going to go away - I think Labour thought there would be a bit of shouting and then the issue would disappear. I'm not going anywhere either. I will continue this protest as long as there is breath in my body. My children have just started hunting and I intend that they will be able to carry on, and eventually their children will hunt too.