Today, tens of thousands of well-meaning people – the exact number depending very much on the weather – will march for Things to Be a Bit Nicer. Where I live in prosperous north-west London, many will take a chance on being excitingly kettled by the "pigs", as I believe the police are referred to in radical circles, as the TUC fights for "an alternative to current government economic policies".
The Earl Grey will be overflowing from the vacuum flasks, and the langues de chats wrapped tidily in greaseproof paper as they gather together in Hyde Park to raise their voices about how absolutely frightful everything is. My very nice neighbour, the author and activist Melissa Benn, says she "can't remember as much of a buzz and sense of 'must go/want to go' feeling about a public protest since the anti- Iraq march". How inspiring. And – sorry Melissa – how completely pointless.
I was never a great protester, even in the glory days when there was Rock Against Racism, Boycott South Africa, Support the Miners, Fatcher Out and the Stop the Poll Tax. I remember at university being asked to march for the Wapping printers, to which I replied, with some incredulity, "Have you ever met a printer?"
But I had a lot of time for those who did trudge the streets in a genuinely good cause. Those marches were real political protests against genuine social evils – the entire destruction of northern communities during the miners' strike, race hate and grievously unfair taxation. All the same, these attempts to change public policy were invariably in vain (the Not in My Name march against the Iraq war being the most notable failure). Only the poll tax riots achieved anything – and that's because they weren't nice Saturday afternoon strolls. They were, as their name suggests, riots.
Will today's march be effective? No. Will it achieve anything at all? No. Will it make those who march feel better about themselves? Almost certainly. What are they protesting against? No one is really sure. And the idea – as some of the organisers have claimed – that the rally can be thought of as being on a par with "recent protests in the Middle East and North Africa" is hilariously self-important, not to say insulting to everyone fighting and dying in those regions.
Because the grim truth is, much as I dislike the Coalition Government, the bankers – and the lack of their regulation thereof – have crippled the economy and we don't have any money left. Cuts may happen quickly or slowly, but they are going to be massive and they are going to happen. So what is this march about?
It's for "jobs, growth and justice", according to the TUC website – three things I think we could all applaud, and which the Chancellor himself would certainly favour. What is he up to doing all those nasty things, when we could have jobs, growth and justice instead? Clearly he is evil, unlike the nice people going on the march.
The march, in fact, is terribly vague about itself. It is angry that the Government wants to "eliminate the deficit in four years". So how many years is the TUC arguing it should take place over? It doesn't say.
The other thing the TUC is complaining about is that the Government is "raising £4 through cuts as against every £1 through tax rises". So basically this is a march in favour of tax rises. Somehow I don't imagine there will be many banners reading "I Want My Tax Rate Raised and I Want It Now". No, on a march like this there are no difficult choices – only Wicked Politicians vs Good People Like Us.
The fact is this is a feel-good march for a feel-good society. Frankly, I would be secretly thrilled if one or two people peacefully aimed a brick or two at the windows of a few well chosen tax-dodging corporations. I am delighted when UK Uncut occupies banks and high street shops and turns them into libraries and drop-in centres – because it is witty, it has an effect (tarnishing the brand) and it is targeted on a real grievance, that is, tax avoidance, and it goes to the heart of the problem, that is, bankers and corporations.
Specificity is everything in a protest – and this march is all about generality. I have fought for my local library to stay open, and the committee I am on has worked hard on presenting realistic alternatives to the library closing – for instance, we as a community running it, or renting part of it out to local businesses. But nobody is seriously suggesting that there isn't a problem. Whereas this march is just saying: let's all whine in unison (or in Unison) and hope that someone, somewhere will be so impressed by our commitment that they will be a bit gentler with us.
It is unlikely to be an angry march – it certainly doesn't feel like one – and it won't actually be a serious march, especially if the sun is out. I can almost guarantee that there will be very little kettling – too many white middle-class people with children – and I can almost guarantee that bugger-all will be achieved.
March for the alternative? Yes, I'll march for the alternative – the alternative to pointless marches. Throw an egg at Sir Philip Green, or a stink bomb at Fred the Shred. Knock a policeman's helmet off if they're rude and bullying towards you and get someone to film it when they club you to the ground and then prosecute you for obstruction.
Get yourself arrested about something specific that you care about and that someone could do something about, if there was the political will behind it – like closing down offshore tax havens and increasing the Inland Revenue budgets so they have the resources to fight the big companies' accountants. (There's another ringing slogan for you – "Support the Inland Revenue Now!".)
But don't take a day out to tell me how perfectly dreadful it all is. You might as well stay at home and listen to The Archers for all the good it will do. Britain is deep in the excrement, and some measure of austerity is the only thing that's going to get us out of it. The only hope we can have is that every sector of society makes an equal contribution, and takes equal pain.
A good old-fashioned riot against the bankers and corporate tax dodgers – now that's a march I could support. But today's march is just too woolly, too polite and too damn nice to make a jot of difference. We should get angry, not mildly annoyed, and we should get angry about something specific – most particularly the financial system, bankers' bonuses, tax breaks for the rich and the innumerable lies the Coalition has told us. "Jobs, Growth and Justice" is just too easy to ignore.
Protest against everything, and you protest against nothing at all. March against something specific, and you'll still be ignored, but at least you've thought things through. Protest against something specific in a systematic, targeted, imaginative way – like UK Uncut – and things might, just might, begin to change.Reuse content