Article: Protests against cuts unlikely to affect government policy

One of my pet hates is protests and marches.  Of course I’m not blinkered enough to disregard its history or its usefulness in enacting change, particularly given recent events in the Middle East (8 March 2012 at the time of writing this).  But I am not convinced by its value in countries with established democracies and..well…Establishments.  I’ll probably have to write a separate blog post on this particular point but below is an article I wrote around the time hordes took to the streets to protest against government cuts.  Unsurprisingly, very little has changed since.

On Saturday as hundreds of thousands of people descended on the streets of London to protest against government cuts, I decided to stay at home because I realised that protesting or marching will achieve one thing and one thing only: nothing.

As a British Bangladeshi-Pakistani (parents from both countries can confuse matters during cricket), I am proud of our right to be able to protest without fear of getting shot down by government militia (think Neda Agha-Soltan).  But does anyone stop to think that our right to protest is as far as it will ever go?

It’s not just for this issue.  Famously, hundreds and thousands of people descended onto the streets of London in 2003 condemning the decision to go to war in Iraq.  We now mourn the dead – both civilian and military.

People have protested vocally against the visit of the Pope, sit-in protests against war and Tamil London wreaked havoc on the streets of Westminster in 2009 and, most recently, student protests against rises in tuition fees.  Aside from vocal protests, a series of letters from top economists in February last year to the Chancellor were another form of protest, this time against proposed economic policies.

In each case, the end result was the same.  Nothing changed.  No protest, certainly in my lifetime, has changed the course of events or decisions that have already been made.  Whilst much is made of the British democracy as the beacon of involving citizens, I often find myself thinking that government and decision-makers look upon the electorate with the same kind of affection a father may look upon his pre-teenage son who he allows to win the race so as to make him feel good about himself.  You’ve had your little protest; we’ll get on and do what we wanted to anyway.

For me, our form of protest is too tame and too pleasant to achieve any kind of difference.  Whislt its nice to be able to walk along the Embankment with children, the importance of the message is easily lost.  Even those who marred the otherwise peaceful marches on Saturday with inane violence ended up hindering the general message the protest march aimed to achieve.

The people of the Middle East are taking massive risks with their lives to make a stand.  We will not have to face the same kind of dangers but I do feel that a march on a sunny Saturday afternoon will do little to change the mindset of the government set in its ways.

Is there a pattern emerging where democratically-elected governments are less receptive to their people (other than at election times) than those we are seeing in the Middle East? I’d argue that we are.  It may have taken decades for people in the Middle East to muster up the courage to stand up to their autocratic leaders but it is precisely this lack of formality in the ruling classes that allows the people to genuinely take a lead in changing and shaping their countries for the better.  The intimately dictatorial foundations are the key to their downfall.

But more importantly, the numbers – some 500,000 in a country of 60 million is less than 1% of the population – will suggest to those in power that those who are most aggrieved at government cuts are a miniscule minority.

It is absolutely right that the message against government cuts be delivered.  But unless drastic changes take place within and across communities, no one will sit up and take notice.  I am not for a minute suggesting that people should set themselves alight or something equally horrific.

But this leaderless approach to making a stand against government cuts will achieve nothing.  The Suffragettes stoked the fire by interrupting public meetings and going to prison.  Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu-Kyi all made stands that captured the national interest and mobilised millions – hundreds of thousands will not cut it.

Most importantly, however, the debate will only be won if there is a viable alternative presented and, quite simply, there hasn’t been.  Simply focussing the arguments on taxing the rich and making bankers pay reads tabloid-esque to those in power.  The debate will not be won by ordinary folk alone.  Neither will it be won by political opponents who will be seen to be points-scoring rather than anything else.

Do I know what the alternative is? No I don’t.  But I certainly want to help someone with the economic and financial clout to find out what it might be and present a water-tight argument against it.  Some cuts are, seemingly, unavoidable but the debate needs the support of non-political independent minds, particularly economists and financiers (Richard Wolff and Paul Krugman have weighed in in the US) to develop and alternative case.

As it stands, unless someone takes the lead and presents an intellectual non-political arguments, cuts will run deep and hard and no amount of walking and paintballing will change that.