Sean O'Grady: This is not Paris 1968, and it is probably self-defeating

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The Independent Online

Just as Ed Miliband tells his party to set its face against "waves of irresponsible strikes" to resist the cuts, the Europeans show the British how it's done, and offer a glimpse of a more militant brand of resistance than motions at the Labour conference and questions to the Prime Minister. In Brussels, Greece, Rome and, most spectacularly, Spain, a general strike was called, the protests rolled on through the day, taking their grimly inevitable course from sunny festivity to clashes with riot police, burned out cars and bloodied foreheads. The same is threatened in France. The real question is whether taking to the streets makes much difference.

It usually doesn't, at least directly. Even when protesters set the Greek parliament on fire last May, Prime Minister George Papandreou still managed to push his cuts through, disorderly though the things were. The usual anti-austerity demo lasts a few hours, is confined to a few big cities and doesn't even aspire to be a revolution. Barcelona 2010 is not, in other words, Paris 1968.

In fact the major impact of such scenes is self-defeating. First, in extremis, they can unnerve investors. They serve to remind the markets that lending to some nations entails more "political risk" than others, and that democracy is relatively new in places. Well within living memory, some of these nations were run by colonels or by fascist dictators who made friends with Hitler and Mussolini. For Spain, Portugal and Greece the fact is that the strikes merely serve to make investors demand a bigger "risk premium", ie higher interest rates, and leave workers' mortgages more expensive to service.

Second, the demos shred confidence, a delicate flower and the only thing that will get Europe's economy moving again for good. No one borrows, spends or invests freely if they see people rioting on the TV news, and the economy takes another dive.

The British ought not to be too smug about all this. The fuel protesters in the autumn of 2000 were efficiently organised and just as vicious as any Trotskyist continental. When the Coalition's cuts bite we could easily see their like again.