On Saturday afternoon my wife, younger daughter and daughter's best friend emerged from Oxford Circus Tube station, on the way to see The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium. Instead they witnessed a different show, and one much more terrifying to two little girls even than the Wicked Witch of the West. For Oxford Circus is also the home of Topshop, part of the empire of Sir Philip Green, the billionaire who avoided hundreds of millions of pounds of tax by allocating the firm's profits to his Monaco-based wife – and therefore the focal point of last Saturday's "anti-cuts" demonstration.
The signs on the demonstrators' placards, however, did not specifically mention Sir Philip, but expressed more generalised propositions. "Fuck the Rich" read one; another, perhaps less metaphorical in intention, declared "Kill the Rich". It was not reading these threats that reduced the two little girls to trembling followed by floods of tears, so much as the vicious expressions on the faces of the demonstrators. Of course, this palpable, snarling hatred was not directed at them. Those intended to bear the brunt of the fury would have been the sales staff and shoppers inside Topshop.
As it happens, the police managed to prevent the storming of Sir Philip Green's flagship emporium of low-cost fashion: it was only Fortnum & Mason whose doors were breached – and by all accounts those demonstrators were altogether more civilised than the mob outside Topshop. I suppose it is natural that a better class of protester would invade Fortnum & Mason, and with a better class of placard: "Proper tea is theft" would seem to be the obvious slogan in the circumstances.
It is also true that the few hundred violent demonstrators, including a balaclava'd brigade of stave-wielding anarchists paradoxically determined to defend the expenditure of the state, were not representative of the hundreds of thousands determined upon peaceable protest. The more interesting question, though, is this: how representative of the country as a whole are those hundreds of thousands?
The Guardian, which lent its full editorial support to the demonstrations, had paid for an ICM opinion poll addressing this question to be published on the day of the march. The result was perhaps not – to judge from its appearance on page 14 – what the paper might have hoped for. As it reported: "Only 35 per cent think the [Government's public expenditure] plans go too far – a 10 per cent drop since ICM asked the question in November. Meanwhile 28 per cent think the Government has found the right balance and 29 per cent say the cuts are not severe enough. That amounts to 57 per cent support for current cuts or more."
On that basis, if there had been competing marches to represent the true current state of opinion in the country as a whole, the 250,000 on the TUC-led march "against the cuts" might have been confronted with over 400,000 demonstrating their support for the Coalition's plans, of whom over 200,000 would in fact be demanding a steeper cut in the state's expenditure.
Perhaps the latter would be chanting: "What do we want? Cuts! When do we want them? Now!" There might also, by exact analogy with the events of last Saturday, have been an unrepresentative few hundred or so with placards declaring "Kill the welfare scroungers"; although as a matter of fact I don't know of anyone, not even the most enthusiastic advocate of fiscal severity, who thinks that the most unscrupulously avaricious beneficiaries of the welfare system should be murdered.
Doubtless many will claim that the polls' 57 per cent figure for the extent of the public support for these, or stronger, public expenditure cuts proves only that most people have been fooled by the Coalition's fiendish management of the media. Yet, if anything, the Government has done a very poor job of selling its public expenditure plans to the British public – perhaps because it desperately wants to convince the international bond markets that it is being ferociously tough on public spending, and thus keep down the interest bill on the national debt.
As this column pointed out a week ago, it is a myth that the welfare state is to be "massacred". The Treasury's Spending Review itself admits that even after the Osborne cuts, "spending on public services in 2014-15 will be higher than 2006-2007 in real terms". Welfare spending, also in real terms, will be 34 per cent higher than it was in 1999-2000. That was the year in which Gordon Brown embarked on a plan which increased spending by 53 per cent in real terms, while Gross Domestic Product grew by only 17 per cent. Result: a public sector debt heading rapidly to the £1 trillion mark – and beyond.
That dramatic increase in the proportion of the workforce employed by the state is what last Saturday's TUC-led march was designed to protect. Unfortunately for the bosses of the public-sector unions, the majority of the public appear to be of the view that, rather than pay ever higher taxes to maintain that colossal establishment and the spiralling interest payments on the exponentially increasing debt, they would prefer to see a reduction in those bills.
Will we see demonstrators from that silent majority, to support the Coalition against future onslaughts from those in the public sector fearful of losing their jobs or index-linked final salary pension schemes? It seems unlikely – the point about the silent majority is that itdoesn't make a noise. Yet it's a notable fact about this country that we tend to follow trends set in America; and in the state of Wisconsin we are perhaps seeing the shape of things to come.
There, the Republican Governor, Scott Walker, has been pushing through highly controversial plans to balance the state's budget, in part by increasing the amount that public-sector employees must contribute to their health insurance and pensions. The public-sector unions have mounted impressive demonstrations to defend their members' financial interests; but now those campaigners have been confronted, in front of the inevitable television cameras, by supporters of Governor Walker's proposals. "No one has ever paid my pension" read one placard from a counter demonstrator. Another carried a board declaring "Pension? Sick Days? Retire at 55? Can I get in on the suffering?"
The Wisconsin unions allege that the counter-demonstrators are being financed by shadowy right-wing billionaires – presumably similar charges would be laid at Sir Philip Green's door if Topshop had been surrounded last Saturday by anti-march employees waving signs declaring, "We work at weekends to pay your index-linked pensions".
Doubtless there are many members of the public who are threatened by the loss of much-valued services, as a result of the Coalition's plan to reduce the deficit between the state's income and expenditure (though not the overall debt, unfortunately). That only makes it the more essential that those providing such services try as hard as possible to do what the private sector has already done, which is to maintain their output on a lower cost base.
Enabling thousands of policemen to earn double time in spending a weekend defending shops and shoppers in central London might not be the best way to go about it.