Saturday, 26 March 2011

On the fantastic anti-cuts march in London

I've just got home from the anti-cuts rally London. The atmosphere was electric and there was a sense of people being in solidarity with one another, whether or not they agreed entirely with the minutiae of their fellow marchers' politics. I personally do not believe that many of the slogans on placards, such as 'Stop All Cuts' are realistic or credible, and I found it offensive to see the front of one hard-left newspaper with a mocked-up picture of David Cameron in a guillotine about to be, how can I put it.....cut! Such nastiness is not funny, it's very unpleasant, it allows our political opponents do portray us as extremist and it detracts from the main point. When extreme Tories called for the hanging of Nelson Mandela, we rightly criticised them...enough said.

Despite this, the overwhelming feeling I took away was that we on the march were all agreed that the scale of the cuts has been too big and at they have been carried out in a sometimes callous and often haphazard manner by people who simply do not understand the concept of public service nor the fear that many vulnerable people feel when vital services are threatened.

The march was family-friendly and despite seeing a posse of six or so masked men clearly intent on trouble at Embankment Tube station (perhaps they turned up later at Piccadilly Circus...), the vast, vast majority of marchers enjoyed what can only be described as a carnival atmosphere as we slowly snaked our way from Waterloo, along the South Bank, onto the Embankment before we reached the Houses of Parliament and Whitehall.

Snaking our way along the South Bank - both sides of the river were packed...

There was a slightly surreal sight at the Palace of Westminster, when Communist hammer and sickle flags fluttered aloft - not something I ever thought I'd see, and quite unsettling.  See below:

We didn't make it as far as Hyde Park in time for the rally and speeches, it having taken us about 3 hours to travel about half a mile. There was a sense of people power, even if this might sound trite. There is something invigorating about being part of a large group of people who share a common purpose, and there is something vital about a the sheer volume of people on the streets for a few hours. The right to peaceful protest is a very important one and the hundreds of thousands of us who marched made our point in a calm, generous-spirited way.

Everyone can see that the Arab Spring is displaying that people power can have a huge effect. Of course our government cannot be compared in any way to those of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.  However, many do feel that our government does lack the legitimacy of many of its predecessors.  Neither of the Coalition partners won an outright majority.  They might be able to claim a mandate to take steps to reduce the deficit faster than Labour.  But they do not have a mandate for the unprecedented scale of the reforms they are ushering in across our public services and even in the NHS.  Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher would have baulked at this government's reform plans even though they possessed huge Parliamentary majorities. Today's protesters were of course not seeking revolution or anything near it.  But a government cannot govern effectively if people begin to feel that they are exceeding their mandate or acting in an unnecessarily ideological manner.  These reforms go to the heart of the social fabric of Britain.  It would have seemed polite for any government seeking to recast the British state to have first sought a mandate by setting out their plans in their General Election manifesto.  We are, after all, constantly being told by the new Coalition that transparency and honesty are the Government's touchstones.

It cannot be denied that protests have their effect.  They are an expression of popular will and whether or not the Government of the day accedes to their demands, the reverberations are felt eventually.  Cause and effect.  Just as the breakneck pace of the Government's reforms left many in the country shell-shocked, so there was an inevitable reaction and today's demonstration was the biggest of these to date.  In a democracy, there must and is always an effect when people protest in such numbers.  In the case of Iraq, the Blair Government, which I supported, chose not to take the advice of the marchers.  But the damage was done and forever more the prevailing view of much of the public (although not mine) is that the government rode roughshod over the views of a million protesters.  In the case of the poll tax riots, the Government initially ignored the protesters, but ultimately the policy was doomed and was changed.  Many have said that Margaret Thatcher's ultimate demise was sealed when she pushed through this doomed policy against better advice.  This government cannot afford to be seen to be trampling on public servants - many of whom are actually Tory and Lib Dem voters.

The student tuition fees demonstrations, the ferocity of which took the body politic by surprise, did not yield a policy U-turn but they caused internal convulsions within the Liberal Democrats, a protest party being protested against. 

Finally, the Government did enact an abrupt U-turn over the plan to sell-off the forests.  Perhaps this was due to the socioeconomic backgrounds of a majority of the protesters.  Caroline Spelman's admirable humility in apologising on behalf of the Government was more significant than many perhaps realise.  In emphasising that this is a 'listening government' they have made a rod for their own back.  The efficacy of their hearing aid might well be intermittent.

The key question following on from today is are they going to listen to the 450,000 people who marched on London?  Listen they must, for this is just the beginning of the popular, peaceful campaign against the speed and extent of the Government's cuts programme.  The majoriy of the cuts have not yet taken effect.  We are about to learn whether the British population has fully accepted the Coalition's mantra that "there is no alternative".

Below are some of the photos I took today:

First up are some of the more amusing placards:

'BRING BACK HUNTING' with a Lib Dem dove in the crosshairs.  A little harsh, I think...

Andrew Lansley as Ronald McDonald and the NHS re-branded.  I think you get the point...

Here is what I can only describe as a 'money monster' with a head made of dollars. 

A huge cheer went up amongst the thousands on the road on the Embankment as we walked past what looked like a delegation from CND, with Bruce Kent, the campaign's wonderful elder-statesman cheering on the crowd:

Huge crowd on the Embankment...

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