Who are the radicals now?

The McLibel Two may have lost the case, but they have won the argument. Even a symbolic victory can make a difference
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A few years ago, I bumped into Dave Morris, one of the McLibel Two, who I knew from a long time ago. Ever the committed anarchist, he asked me if I was going on the Eat the Rich march. "No," I said rather sheepishly, "I'm going to Safeways." It could have been worse, I could have been taking the kids to McDonald's. Yet I am glad that there are people like Dave in the world, individuals who just won't take it anymore. For he and his co-defendant Helen Steel may have lost the case but they won the argument. The campaign will go on. McDonald's exploits its workers, children and animals. That's official.

If this is, as Michael Mansfield has said, "a major victory", then we also have to declare that the road protesters have also won even when roads are built, trees cut down and runways built. Radical politics is winning at a symbolic level. But just who is radical these days when mainstream politicians talk of the "radical centre", when the country requires "radical modernisation", when it is considered possible to proclaim oneself a radical and yet be at the heart of the establishment?

We are confused about this government because the lines between left and right have gone all blurry. Or Blairy. Is Frank Field a maverick, a radical, a right-winger or a visionary? Is the new administration steering a path through the ideological minefield that can really be described, as it was by John Lloyd in the New Statesman, as "the third way"? When we grudgingly admit that it may have done some good things, are we merely being duped because something is better than nothing?

The McLibel trial illustrated what capitalism is actually like, its ruthlessness, its efficiency, its ability to transform itself. Words like capitalism and globalisation conjure images of giant machines that can never be stopped, that go on working whoever is in charge, that endlessly regenerate themselves. The McLibel Two reminded me of something else altogether - the power of human agency, the ability of little people to jam up the work, to sabotage the bosses, to just say no. This is an immensely brave thing to do. Most of us don't possess the purity for this kind of radicalism. We have become too realistic.

Many of us have given up on traditional forms of politics, many of us did not vote at all and cannot share the euphoria that greets the new masters. However, to give up on politics often means little more than a refusal to trust anybody at all. It means ultimately that we cannot trust ourselves. To insist though that nothing can ever really change until the day of glorious revolution is in itself an innately conservative view; it cannot see how the world has changed therefore it cannot change the world.

The reaction, then, both personally and politically, appears to be the current pick 'n' mix approach that we are now seeing. The Blairites are accused of being jackdaws, magpies stealing policies from other parties to feather their own nests. Tony Blair may claim to be taking the ideology out of politics; others would claim he is taking the politics out of politics so that he simply manages the status quo more efficiently.

In many ways, however, this new government is mirroring the views of the population, which tends to be socially liberal but fiscally conservative. On issues from abortion to gay rights to the decriminalisation of cannabis, there is a growing consensus towards the extension of personal freedom. At the same time, we see the growth of personal pension plans, private health insurance and security measures to make us feel safe in what appears to be an increasingly dangerous world. Such individualism means that poverty tends to be seen as a fact of life rather than as the outcome of social and economic policy.

We could, then, define the new radicals as those who insist on collective solutions to collective problems, such as the environmental activists, who are often mistaken for libertarians. Yet such a position is riven with contradiction. A pure libertarian position for instance would allow fox-hunting, would allow surrogate mothers to do what the hell they like, would allow veal calves to be exported and drugs to be taken. Libertarians would not be asking the state to intervene, to enforce more controls, to monitor our cows for BSE, our water for oestrogens, to stop the traffic so that we can move around more easily.

Those who feared the authoritarianism of Jack Straw have so far been disappointed. Children out after nine o'clock are not to be clamped, single mothers not electronically tagged. There is, as yet, no national bedtime enforced by young offenders on community service. What is clever about what has been done so far is that it is radical only in as far as it costs nothing. Apologising for the Irish famine or talking about the rights of gays in the military is free and reassures the liberals.

The real questions over compulsion - are people to be made to take jobs that they don't want and that don't actually exist, in order to reduce public spending - have yet to be answered. There is also a possibility that a form of cultural radicalism that nods towards women's equality, gay rights, a multi-cultural society can in fact mask a restructuring and stripping down of the economy that in many ways can be characterised as right-wing.

Before our very eyes we see that while Blair is embracing devolution, he is centralising power; that while there is talk of a minimal state, of less government, the inevitable changes in the public sector - in health, education and social security - will mean more interference in people's lives, more surveillance, more intrusion, more talk of responsibilities, duties and obligations for those who can least afford them. The price of maintaining a welfare state?

How then are we to define a radical position? Is it radical to live up a tree and yet demand that a government you never voted for stop a runway being built? Is it radical to live in 11 Downing St instead of 10 and understand that there are many things that are beyond your control, which you can do nothing about? Is it radical to run an open government when the campaign required to win power meant a total shut-down? Or is it radical to leaflet outside a hamburger franchise and then spend precious years of your life defending such an action?

I am delighted that there is apparently "a third way" that is neither left nor right but I would argue that there is probably a fourth way too: a radicalism that questions all authority, never trusts a government, not even one which promises to be radical once it is in power, that exists to find a way between what is possible and what we are told is impossible, that lives the politics of dissent.

Though I would never want to live in a country governed by Dave Morris, indeed my previous experience of his household indicates that I would probably be banished from it, I have nothing but admiration for his and Helen Steel's campaign. They believed they could make a difference. I believe they have. That's radical enough if you ask me.