The Year in Review: Protest

Athens, Paris, Millbank – the people hit back

Katherine Butler
Friday 24 December 2010 01:00 GMT

It was one of the images of 2010. The Duchess of Cornwall in evening gown and jewels, mouth open, panic-stricken eyes, recoils in horror as the ostentatious vintage limousine taking her and the heir to the throne to the theatre strays into one of the biggest street protests staged in London for years.

From students revolting about university tuition fees, activists railing against the tax status of corporate fat-cats, or popular anger over bank bonuses and savage spending cuts, the icy winter of 2010 was when Brits stopped quietly grumbling and sighing, as if presented with another over-crowded train, and marched on Parliament Square or Millbank instead.

Were the British becoming more French? Quicker to collective fury and happy to go on strike or disrupt the economy to show it? Perhaps it was more that being lectured to about societal "fairness" and "everyone being in it together", when a minority of super-rich were manifestly not going to suffer, finally caused something to snap.

The clashes, protests, sit-ins and occupations of the winter of 2010 were hardly the French Revolution, even if Camilla had a certain Marie Antoinette air about her reaction. But the agitation was hailed as evidence of a new era of political radicalisation among a previously apathetic, cossetted and atomised youth. The younger ones congratulated themselves meanwhile for discovering the thrill of dissent and for harnessing the digital revolution to organise their uprising. Social media weapons such as Twitter and Facebook helped give the protesters the sense that it was they, and not the authorities who were in control of the message.

Was it part of a wider global, protest movement? Certainly in many parts of Europe and beyond, 2010 will be remembered for economic upheaval and the protests that austerity inspired. But the mere fact of brutal spending cuts being visited on a country was not enough to guarantee rioting or obvious forms of social unrest.

In Ireland and Latvia, the two European countries worst hit by banking and business collapse, savage IMF-led programmes went through in sorrow more than anger. Foreign media crews who descended on Dublin in November, when the full scale of the debt crisis became clear, to witness the rioting, found little to film. There was no shortage of anger, but Irish people were more likely to express it by calling a radio phone-in or removing their savings from their once trusted local bank branch.

On the weekend when Dublin, under massive pressure from its EU partners, finally agreed to apply for an EU/IMF bailout, thus surrendering what many feared was the nation's economic sovereignty, the BBC was reduced to repeating over and over the same images of a lone man shouting and waving his fists outside the gates of the Irish parliament.

Greece, by contrast, had from mid-2009 seemed like a country on the edge of a nervous breakdown. May 2010 brought days of violent clashes and the deaths of three people trapped in a burning bank. As the year came to a close, the street clashes returned as tens of thousands again demonstrated against debt-inspired cutbacks. The fear that Greeks were at a tipping point was highlighted when Kostas Hatzidakis , a former economics minister was beaten up during one protest, his attackers screaming: "Thieves, thieves" as they punched him.

The scenes of Europe in ferment threatened the resolve of governments which had advocated austerity as the way out of the crisis, which is why turbulence on the financial markets around the euro continued. The Greek government was thought strong enough to bulldoze through one of the toughest budgets in Greek history. However, the discovery in November that parcel bombs had been sent to European leaders by a radical Greek group renewed fears of a return to anarchist activity. Spain too, a victim of the eurozone debt "contagion" witnessed mass anti-austerity protests in September and a 24 hour general strike at the end of that month caused chaos. However, Spanish trade unions are reluctant to push back too far against the austerity drive, for fear of triggering the collapse of a left-of-centre government.

In France however, the Sarkozy government, facing elections in 2012, may have to compromise with the unions over belt-tightening. Days of rolling protests against pension reforms in October united unions and students and paralysed much of the country as oil refineries were shut down, fuel depots blockaded and schools closed. Up to three million people demonstrated in the event that marked the climax of the protests.

The coming months will tell whether the winter of Britain's discontent marked the beginning of a new era of political activism and engagement. Of course, similar things were said of Iran in 2009 when massive public protests threatened a velvet revolution. Twelve months on, anniversary protests were a pale shadow, a testament to the fightback mounted by the authorities. Ironically, the show of people power in the UK did not go unnoticed in the Islamic Republic, where the British ambassador was summoned to be told of "concern" over police brutality against students in the streets of London.

In Britain there is a stronger chance the protest movement will expand, not dissipate. Tuition fee protests petered out after MPs voted the measures through anyway. But huge damage had been inflicted on the Liberal Democrats and their leader Nick Clegg. And big business began to feel the fury with shopping disrupted by protesters staging "sit-downs" in high street stores. One protester carried a football, a symbol of his anger at Government plans to slash schools' sports funding. "I'll be back," Frederick Mohan, 21, warned. "I'll keep coming until people start abandoning the three main political parties in favour of a newer approach."

The mood of insurrection was fuelled by the furore over WikiLeaks and their "hactivist" supporters even if one group wanted to destroy authority, and another wanted the state to do more. In the boardrooms, bosses were left fretting about what would happen if austerity protesters and social activists joined forces with hackers and "anarchists" to paralyse the economy.

The establishment, whether political, corporate or economic, was urgently having to reassess its defences.

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