Wednesday, 19 October 2011
City protests: no-one knows where they're headed
Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London are fascinating examples of a groundwell of feeling about the banking sector and its power. Tens of thousands have marched around the world to express their discontent about the financial system and its disproportionate rewards and influence. About 250 protestors are continuing to camp out at St Paul's Cathedral (above) to register their disgust at a sytem which nationalises the costs failure while privatising the benefits of 'success'.
Conservative newspapers, politicians and thinkers have expressed sympathy for the anger. But they haven't moved much from their position that financial services, and City workers in general, are crucial to Britain's tax base, its balance of payments and its prosperity.
In the long run, they might be highly significant. The Chartists, campaiging for universal suffrage in the early nineteenth century, saw their halcyon days and attempt to emulate continental revolutionaries peter out on Kennington Common. 'Established' opinion and 'common sense' condemned the Suffragists. The Socialist Medical Association spent years fighting for a national health service that would be free at the point of use. Conservative Ministers poo-poohed 1980s and 1990s grass roots movements calling for a National Minimum Wage. Did it destroy jobs, as they claimed it would? Er, no.
All of those ideas seemed outlandish to many at the time. But in the end they came to seem irresistible - a process in which sit-ins, petitions, protests and speeches were vital, whatever some official, archivally-based or 'top-down' histories say. Last year saw the UK elect its first Green Member of Parliament - something deemed impossible a couple of decades ago.
Occupy Wall Street and London's City protestors might just fade away, a few concessions hemming in bankers' behaviour all they have to show for it in the short term.
But in the long term? We might be witnessing an upheaval that historians write about for many decades to come.