Monday, 28 March 2011
Reflections on Saturday's big march
So I spent Saturday with my hand up, committed to a political cause. It's not a pose that comes particular naturally to me, to be honest. Years and years of a 'detached', 'fair' and 'balanced' historical training have made it impossible for me not to say, 'well on the one hand this, on the other hand the other'. And temperamentally I'm not about to smash any windows. But I did indeed trudge through the March for the Alternative. I managed to turn my hips to concrete, a-stop-starting on the tarmac and standing around for five hours. But it seemed worth it in the end.
The Coalition's deficit reduction plan seems so half-baked, so reckless and so rapid that the feeling is growing among many unradical people that 'something must be done' - as the more sensitive media observers, such as Newsnight's Paul Mason, observed when they went on the march. Whole coachloads of officeworkers, public servants and just worried citizens disgorged themselves in London for hour after hour, pushing up estimates of their numbers to between a quarter of a million and half a million. As he noted, the tens of thousands of parents pushing buggies, older people leaning on sticks and single people who'd just come along on their own showed that 'something is up'. Given that people were still arriving in Hyde Park at dusk (about 6.30pm) from the official start on the Embankment, the likely number of marchers was probably closer to the bigger figure than the smaller.
Most of it was good fun. I set off from just behind the British Library in a 'feeder' march filled with lecturers and students (above) and it was one of those days when an Englishman or woman might turn and speak to a stranger. Jokes filled the throng. Banners saying 'easy there' and 'hello mum' jostled with those from the Socialist Workers Party. Smiling policemen, doing their best to jolly people along, grinned when observers noted that they never thought they'd see the Ritz with its windows smashed (above). Stewards mingled with people of all creeds, colours and classes. As Michael White of The Guardian observed, it was all for the most part 'wholesome family fare'.
The whole event will probably do little to change the Government's view that they have to wipe out £122bn of borrowing in under three and a half years - a feat never before achieved in the OECD, and a well-nigh imposible task, and one opposed by the last three Nobel Laureates in Economics. Recent polls show that the armed conflict in Libya and the relatively favourable press given to the Budget have allowed the Conservatives to narrow the gap with Labour - or even take the lead again. The detailed numbers demonstrate just how much the public still blame the previous government for austerity. Scroll down any public comments page and you'll see entry after entry dominated by idea.
Still - there was a community atmosphere of mutual support that eased the pain of being shouted down by economic ignoramuses that have never looked at a real balance sheet in their lives. Only the thought that seeing two other historians and friends in the massive crowd demonstrated the narrow section of society out protesting diluted that warm feeling just a little.
Many sympathetic observers were frustrated by anarchist dust-ups, and voiced their outrage that the more moderate ideas of Middle England's public sector workers at least should have been drowned out. To be honest, I think they've got the wrong target there. It's the media that's managed to fasten on the violence elsewhere in the city - which really enjoyed only a parasitic relationship with the march itself - while simultaneously saying 'everyone's talking about the violence'. Talk about a meta-narrative that enforces itself. What about interviewing some of the marchers themselves and shoving that in your highlights package? Not a single such voice came across in the BBC News at Ten, or on ITN. It's a deeply concerning ideological blackout that needs addressing.
I used to be a journalist. I know that smashing windows and firing paint at the Ritz makes good TV - and print copy. It calls out for big headlines and big photos. Fair enough. But so does the anger of great swathes of the public - and that's not coming across. Saturday on the news looked nothing like Saturday in real life. That's a problem - for journalists as well as those of us who oppose the Coalition's agenda.