Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Voices of protest that deserve to be listened to, not sneered at

Those who have carved out power for themselves are rather good at undermining popular dissent and challenges to the political establishment

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My husband, daughter and I should have joined fellow-citizens who marched on Saturday against the cuts demanded by fundamentalist, doctrinaire Tories and their helpful little Lib Dem friends. But I had earlier agreed to speak at the annual conference of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions ( ICAHD) – valiant, peaceful activists trying to stop bulldozers that daily demolish Palestinian homes and who tenaciously campaign against the occupation and land grabs by their own nation, their own people. Several people in the audience wanted to join the marchers too, but the plight and pain of Palestinians mattered more. Of course. That doesn't mean the London demonstration was decadent and self-serving. There is plenty of room in our hearts for different causes and not all of them have to be about life-and-death struggles.

Popular uprisings are needed to overthrow tyrannies, while in democracies determined reformers take on the state and help to move society towards enlightenment and equality. Humans understand that for a full and fulfilled life they need more than the ballot box, bread and circuses. Today I have the vote, the right not to be racially discriminated against, guaranteed individual freedoms because unstoppable voices both took to the streets and infiltrated the innermost corridors of influence. The most admired nations in the world still have much room for improvement. Only their leaders think "more than enough already".

In our own enduring democracy governments have been arch-manipulators. Lovely are their enunciated platitudes – that people have an absolute right to strike or protest. What they really mean is that these rights must never interfere with or overturn decisions and policies. We may stop the traffic for a few hours; the media can have some adventures and the police a day to test their control strategies, some brutal. But change? Not really – a bit hot-blooded and foreign, not something Great Britain encourages.

Those who have carved out niche power for themselves are also rather good at undermining popular dissent and extra-democratic challenges to the political establishment. One among many patrician columnists saw this demo as a silly non-event before it happened. On the Today programme, they were really tickled by the "funny" and "witty" posters, as if that was the point. The sneers and distractions made no impact on the people who are fighting for their own lives and the life of our nation. Reliable sources estimate that over 400,000 people came to voice their opposition to the cuts being pushed through so fast and so deep. A YouGov poll for the TUC found that 52 per cent of people supported the aims of the protesters, including one in five Tories. Other polls are showing a steady rise in numbers of Britons who agree that the Government's policies are unfair. A revealing survey by the BBC World Service found that extreme poverty worried Britons more than anything else – much more than migration.

Over the past year we have heard reasoned arguments and genuine concern from nurses, teachers, doctors, academics, and charity workers; from bosses, local government staff, arts organisations, writers, journalists, civil servants, students and their parents; from socially conscientious entrepreneurs, childcare experts, psychologists and other mental-health workers; from Keynesian economists, environmentalists, refugees and asylum-seekers; from black and Asian equality and human rights activists; from actors, playwrights, comedians, school governors, trustees, funders, the police, fire-fighters, industrial workers, ordinary bank staff and on and on. Individuals from all these groups gathered and walked on Saturday. Are they all mad, bad and dangerous, then?

As ever when crowds gather, there were some flashpoints, some trouble provoked by anarchists ( they say) and possibly skilled state agents provocateurs. The physical attacks on police officers and others were indefensible. But some of the other reports seem to be stretching it. Sticks were thrown, we were told, and Boots somewhere "was forced to close its shutters". RBS had paint thrown over it and poor (not) Fortnum and Mason was brutally violated. It shouldn't have happened but it is nothing compared to the vandalism of this government.

Even if five blind and deaf men and women and one pushchair had turned up, for sure the next day there would have been reports of "mayhem". So the story goes from a silly (or shameful) indulgence to a Bolshie revolution that threatens to drag these isles to the bottom of the sea. It is always the same. That way the reasons for the discontent, the warnings about what is to come, are silenced and retired to the annals of hopeless uprisings in history.



The difference this time, as with opposition to the Iraq war, is that Britons who usually have nothing in common are coming together to oppose this slash-and -burn Government – for example an ex-miner whose son wants to go to university, a QC whose son was kettled, and a brace of professors opposing the education and research now being forced on them. Cameron and Clegg try to blame the ugly mood on the unions, on New Labour (which was no better than this lot), spoilt students, "fat-cat" public-sector workers.

Few are taken in. The people can see that the real fat cats who got us into this mess are getting richer than ever, and are avoiding tax. Now more foreign millionaires are officially invited in by George Osborne to camp on this soil and take their profits to safe havens. Knaves who fled because they were asked to pay in tax are coming back. The Government is a manic deregulator of business, and workers' rights will soon be buried. Expect instead the ruthless capitalism proving so successful in India and China.

This time next year we will be living in a country we barely recognise and only a lucky few will thrive in. Saturday was, I hope, the beginning, not the end of resistance. If Israeli peaceniks can do what they do, surely we can too. Our homes aren't being razed but we are about to see the British welfare state demolished without compunction by the Coalition. Not even the NHS is safe in their hands. So what next? I await my instructions and promise to be there.



y.alibhaibrown@independent.co.uk

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