The new age of protest

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The new age of protest

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Could a fresh generation of activists cause the government unprecedented strife? Plus: exclusive interview with Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers

Click here for Prospect’s exclusive interview with Hugh Orde, President of the Association of Chief Police Officers

For six undergraduates at the University of Kent, Christmas arrived through the window. They were the final cadre of those student protesters who brought chaos to the streets of London in 2010, and their occupation of a campus administration building lasted until 5th January.

They holed up for 30 days in Kent’s Senate building, relying on a supply of food gifts from students and lecturers, passed through ground-floor windows because security guards prevented anyone from entering. On Christmas Day a roast chicken, spuds and cranberry sauce were delivered. The students fashioned their own crackers from loo roll.

Alex Stevenson, a 20-year-old politics student, is eloquent in his criticism of the coalition’s decision to raise tuition fees and to scrap public funding for universities and the education maintenance allowance which subsidised poor students. On the day before the sit-in ended, Stevenson was defiant: “This is just the beginning,” he said.  “This is the year of protest.”

He may be right. Despite Britain’s strong culture of parliamentary democracy, much of its political history—even just in the last 40 years—has been decided on the streets or through industrial action. Governments have not often given in directly to street demonstrations. But the downfall of several can be linked to mass protests—the union-led resistance to Ted Heath in 1974, or to James Callaghan in 1979, or the poll tax riots that damaged Margaret Thatcher’s authority in 1990 (see “Four Decades of British Protest, below). The labour movement is weaker today. The question now is whether new forms of protest, harnessing the internet, can become a significant source of pressure on the government, perhaps by joining forces with the unions.

As 2011 begins, bands of protesters from all walks of life are lining up to take their fights to the government. Like the Kent students who refused to go home after the Commons voted to increase fees, these groups are more strident and dedicated than Britain has seen for years. Their objectives vary dramatically, but they all favour direct approaches: strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins and high-street disruption.

At the head of these groups stand Britain’s unions. The first TUC-led national demonstration is scheduled for 26th March in Hyde Park; police estimate it could draw 1m people. Unison, the public sector union, has set aside £17.5m to fight the cuts. The train drivers’ union, Aslef, and BA staff, represented by Unite, are discussing strike action in April timed to disrupt the royal wedding. Regardless of the specific disputes, the core of each union’s goal is to stop the cuts. Supervising all this is Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC, who has predicted that the government, if it doesn’t change course: “could well find the country united against it.”

Disabled groups are also planning campaigns in March and April. Angered by reform of the disability living allowance and the scrapping of the independent living fund, Linda Burnip, an organiser of Disabled People Against Cuts, argues that “30 years of the disabled people’s movement in Britain has been wiped out in six months.” Conservationists are getting in on the act, too, planning protests against the “privatisation” of Britain’s publicly-owned forestry. In January, activists in Gloucester burned an effigy of Big Ben on the outskirts of the Forest of Dean. Not so green, but equally passionate, are hauliers, who have organised the “Fair Fuel UK Campaign” following petrol price rises. The truckers say their industry is “already at breaking point” and, with a further price rise scheduled for April, the spectre of fuel blockades flickers on the horizon.

Nor have the students gone away. They disrupted a speech by culture secretary Jeremy Hunt at the LSE in early January, claiming he was unfit to adjudicate on Rupert Murdoch’s bid to buy back Sky TV. Student groups have planned a new rally against the cut to the education maintenance allowance in London; and a “national rally for young people” both in Manchester and the capital. UK Uncut, a group putting pressure on wealthy tax avoiders, vows to repeat the high street demonstrations that shut Vodafone and Topshop branches in December. Its targets include Boots, in protest at the company moving its headquarters to Switzerland. And across the world, “Anonymous,” the hacker network that came to the defence of WikiLeaks last year, is poised for fresh attacks.

It seemed in recent years that Britain had become uninterested in mass protest, but the opposite may now be true. Last year’s protests have given momentum to new ones. The triggers are falling standards of living for those on middle and lower incomes, dramatic cuts to benefits and public services which some have compared to the “Geddes Axe” of the early 1920s (when Britain confronted its first world war debts), and resentment at bankers’ bonuses. Some of the organisations channelling these grievances are well-financed; all are highly motivated; and none will be easy to appease.

Disabled activists protest at 30 years of rights “wiped out in six months.” Photo: Timm Sonnenschein/report

This tumult of British protest does not, of course, exist in isolation. Last year, so-called “anti-austerity” protests took place across Europe—in Paris, Barcelona and Brussels—and they have continued this year in Bulgaria and Romania. In Athens, a year of demonstrations culminated in December in the arson attack on the finance ministry. The protests have been motivated by government cuts, and often led by public-sector workers.

Britain is no different. Apart from Anonymous, the new protests reflect fury at the coalition’s spending review in October, and the emergency budget in June. At first, both were well received by the majority of the press and public. Soon after the emergency budget, polls revealed that George Osborne enjoyed the best approval ratings of any Tory chancellor since records began. That may have been because the details of the cuts were still unclear. In July, Observer columnist Nick Cohen wrote that voters were refusing to face up to the true effects, creating an “almost hallucinatory atmosphere in Britain [and] the sense that we are living in a daydream.”

The atmosphere changed on 10th November, when a demonstration led to students storming Millbank Tower, overlooking the Thames. The Metropolitan Police was caught off-guard. One officer had said at the start of the protest, with 50,000 young people gathered around him: “we’re not expecting any trouble.”

What happened is well-known. An old-fashioned rally in which undergraduates were bussed to London to march on parliament and hear speeches from National Union of Students officials sheared off when it reached the Embankment and set a course for Tory party headquarters. Following a 14ft papier-mâché carrot carried by students from Goldsmiths College, thousands clustered beneath the party offices, where they smashed windows, lit fires, daubed graffiti and dropped a fire extinguisher from the roof (resulting in a 32-month prison sentence for the culprit). Bob Broadhurst, head of the Metropolitan Police public order branch, admitted: “We were caught out. We were probably going a bit too much on the intelligence at the time, none of which suggested disorder.”

The students’ ferocity was unexpected because young Britons are not known for holding strong political views. They do not, for example, vote as often as other age groups. Members of this “apathetic generation” seemed to find their voice at Millbank, though, even if at first they only chanted “Tory scum!”

More than two decades have passed since masses assembled to recite anti-Tory slogans. It was David Cameron who, on the evening of the demonstration, drew the first comparison with the Thatcher era, if only to try to lay it to rest. “I think there’s a very big difference from the 1980s,” he said. “This time we have a coalition government that’s trying to take the country with us as we do difficult things with the debt and deficit.”

Yet union leaders have delighted in drawing parallels with the Thatcher era as a rallying tool. In January, transport union leader Bob Crow called for “a campaign of resistance” against “the most rabidly anti-working-class government since the darkest days of Thatcher,” while Brendan Barber has repeatedly evoked visions of the poll tax riots in speeches.

These comparisons can be overdone, however. While the strongest challenge to the government comes from well-funded, old-fashioned union opposition and industrial unrest, which Downing Street must address in months of rumbling negotiation, the protests emanating from those younger sections of society pose new threats. Rapidly mobilising with the aid of digital technology, and intensely suspicious of mainstream politics, these young protesters don’t behave like traditional demonstrators or union protestors. That means they may be much more tricky for the government to counter.

The NUS began planning its November march two months beforehand, but the second was organised in just days, using text messages, Twitter and Facebook. Soon after the first protest, several hundred students met at King’s College, London. Many expressed support for the vandalism and proposed a second march on 24th November. This time, they organised using a Facebook page entitled “Day X,” which quickly attracted 25,000 users. Demonstrations took place across the country, while 5,000 descended on Westminster—many of them schoolchildren. It was akin to what the French call a “manifestation”—a spontaneous taking to the streets.

The students aren’t the only group to harness digital tools. The UK Uncut site lists the location and timetable of rolling protests planned for the spring and tells visitors: “No action scheduled for where you are? Then organise one yourself!” Members of UK Uncut talk of a “hashtag Revolution”—a reference to the “#” function on Twitter that allows users to share messages of a similar theme. UK Uncut has used the service to devastating effect, organising events and extending its political conversations to strangers. On Saturday 4th December, Vodafone stores across Britain were closed by UK Uncut activists demonstrating against the telecommunications company’s offshore tax arrangements. Jim Cranshaw, also a member of the Oxford Save our Services campaign, helped to shut the branch in his city: “On that Saturday, ‘#UKUncut’ became one of the most popular trends on Twitter—thousands of people were sending messages of support. In Oxford, people who couldn’t be present physically were present virtually—sending us slogans to chant in store—which we did. The geographical boundaries of protest fell away.”

By the end of 2010, the self-styled hacktivists Anonymous had proven that it was possible to create popular campaigns and take action without leaving your house. Having previously attacked the Church of Scientology and aided protestors against the Iranian government, Anonymous took up the cause of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. When WikiLeaks was banned from using the web-hosting facilities of e-commerce giant Amazon, and the online transaction facilities of Mastercard and Visa to collect donations (see Bill Thompson on “Web Wars”), Anonymous launched a series of attacks that spammed the companies’ servers with bogus information requests, causing those of Visa and Mastercard to collapse temporarily. Thousands of people worldwide shared links to a “three-step guide” describing how to turn other people’s computers into “bots”: PCs that can be controlled remotely and used to attack websites. As a result, users with no prior knowledge of hacking could suddenly take large companies offline.

So far, two Dutch teenagers associated with a separate Anonymous attack on the public prosecutor’s office in the Netherlands have been arrested. But the police will have a tough time rounding up the ringleaders. By its very nature, no one is in charge of Anonymous. The identity of the protesters can change in moments and anyone could get involved. Just before 2010 ended, Anonymous issued a manifesto in which it defined itself as “a living idea… that can be edited, updated—changed on a whim. We are living consciousness.”

Despite all this, some argue that online protests are inherently weaker than traditional forms of dissent. Two months before Anonymous brought down the Mastercard server, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an influential article in the New Yorker explaining why “the revolution will not be tweeted.” He claimed online networks create “weak-tie connections” that make “it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” He contrasted the weakness of digital protests with the discipline, strategy and hierarchy of effective protest movements in the past: “If Martin Luther King Jr had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery [where public buses were segregated],” concluded Gladwell, “he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure.”

Others claim Gladwell drew a false distinction between offline and online communities. Aaron Peters, a 26-year-old participant in UK Uncut, says: “We soon realised that those offline and online networks could serve to strengthen each other—during the Vodafone protests they both worked together in symbiosis. Online networks sped things up dramatically.”

Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, says there is “a generational divide” in policing, which makes senior officers “look like complete amateurs” when compared to technically literate young people.  One problem, he said in an interview with Prospect (see below), is that protests rapidly organised online—as in late November—are much harder to police: “There is a whole new dimension to public order: speed. Some of the recent protests have demonstrated a lack of willingness to engage with the police before the event. The union movement [by contrast] has a very good history of co-operating with the cops.”

Appealing to demonstrators to work more closely with police may be wishful thinking. “The tragedy of people not engaging [before events] is that we have to put more cops on it,” Orde argues. “That means there are less police available to do the things the public want us to do.”

Another problem is that demonstrators with mobile devices now know as much about what is happening on the ground as the police. On 9th December, when student protesters entered Whitehall for the last time that year, they used Google mapping systems, updated in real time, to identify where police had congregated in an attempt to circumvent their cordons. And within hours, pictures of attacks on the car containing Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall emerged, and police reported that 12 officers and 43 protesters were injured.

Reports from volunteer legal observers Green & Black Cross, seen by Prospect, refer to dozens of violent incidents between police and protesters. Infamously, one 19-year-old, Alfie Meadows, was beaten so badly by police that he required brain surgery. Volunteer Lucy McMahon describes how, in one demonstration, police deployed the tactic of kettling: forming large cordons of officers to contain a crowd within an area. At 3.28pm, she records “protesters are falling down; one female protester fell, tried to get up and was bashed down by police… It is physically impossible to move.” By 9pm “what appears to be thousands are kettled on [Westminster] bridge, there is panic, crying… An officer is using baton on protesters who are being pushed forward by those behind them.”

The home secretary, Theresa May, later thanked the police for their “great bravery and professionalism in the face of violence and provocation.” She declared that the police had defended “democratic debate” that day, recognising that, for many present, the December demonstration was not just an “anti-cuts” protest but was aimed at parliament itself.

The TUC’s Brendan Barber leads an anti-cuts rally in October. Photo: Jess Hurd/report”

Many of the young people who chanted anti-Tory and anti-Nick Clegg slogans voted for the first time in the 2010 general election. They felt betrayed by the Lib Dem leader reneging on his pledge to scrap tuition fees. Their first taste of democratic politics has been bitter. In previous eras, their anger might have manifested in support for Labour, but not this time. Ed Miliband called on young people to “speak out for their generation,” offering membership of his party for just a penny to anyone under the age of 27 in December. The scheme was a failure, attracting just 400 new supporters.

The reason for this is simple. Many of those young protesters who rioted at Millbank reject the old structures of British politics entirely—even the NUS, whose 25-year-old president has faced calls to resign. UK Uncut’s Aaron Peters says that many members feel that “mainstream politics has failed.” Anonymous, meanwhile, will simply take action whenever the critical mass of hacktivists required to bring down a server is reached. The hackers make no attempt to engage with democratic politics.

The contrast with the unions could not be starker. While unions defend their members’ direct interests: jobs, pay and benefits, many of the students who protested will not be personally affected by university funding changes. For unions, strikes and rallies are bargaining chips in their negotiations with the government. This is why, as Orde observes, organised labour demonstrations rarely turn violent, for fear of losing public opinion. Young people have no similar need for self-restraint. The students did not seek to negotiate in December; many grandly and naively hoped to stop the parliamentary vote in its tracks.

These variations, in motives and tactics, make it hard to believe that the unions can bind young people to their cause, even though they are trying. In January the TUC’s Brendan Barber met with representatives of anti-cuts campaigns from across Britain, including students, and talked of fashioning a “progressive movement” with them.

But that attempt at an alliance carries risks for both sides. The risk for the unions is that student violence could turn public opinion against their cause. The risk for the students and UK Uncut is that their concerns could be dismissed as soon as union bosses meet with ministers. Yet if Barber’s alliance worked, it might combine the funding of unions with the online organisation of the students. That movement would begin to look like a left-wing Tea Party—and it could make life for the coalition, and for the cops, very uncomfortable.

Even if that alliance fails, young protestors have proved that, acting alone, they can cause real trouble for David Cameron. In barracking Jeremy Hunt at the start of this year, and in drowning out a more nuanced debate on fees, they showed they could undermine the prime minister’s ambition to “take the country with us” on the journey to budgetary balance. The demonstrations might also serve to weaken the resolve of Lib Dems within the coalition. Many would argue that the government asks too much when it pursues a radical agenda and calls at the same time for unity. Britain’s year of protest will surely show it cannot have both.


Click here to read this interview in full

On the attack on Prince Charles

“The [Met] commissioner made the point that if it had happened in Washington it would have been very different. [In the US] the whole approach to protecting people is based on overwhelming force if necessary… I think it would have been a bloodbath.”

On protecting parliament

“You cannot let the house of the government of the country be overrun. It’s a primary, without question we’ve got to protect the dignity of parliament.  That’s what the cops did. No one got in.”

On consistency in policing

“We are trying to deliver 21st-century policing against a 20th-century policing structure, which [is] a big mistake. But what we can do across police forces is have a broad consensus… around what tactics can be deployed. Otherwise when you borrow cops [from other forces] you get potentially a far more extreme situation, where cops think they are doing the same thing but they are not.”

On the use of water cannons

“It is quite an extreme tactic. I can understand why the [Met] commissioner would not have even thought of deploying it. We used it in Northern Ireland to keep people with bombs and guns away from police lines and from the opposing section of the community. It would be inappropriate [here]. That’s not to say there may not come a time when you do see it being used on the mainland.”

On kettling protestors

“I can understand the need for it, but my sense is the tactic, as with all these things, evolves over time… Sometimes containment without question detains or interferes with the rights of citizens [but it is done] for the greater good, and that’s the really complex part of policing.”

On the 9th December student protests

“We were between the state and the people, which is a bad place for police to be. We have to make it explicit that all we are doing is policing the event so citizens can exercise their rights. What we are not are state enforcers of government policy. This is a critical distinction and the only way of [making that clear] is by talking. If people don’t want to talk, then you have a problem.”

On the problem of leaderless protests

“My sense is the majority of people don’t want to cause extreme violence, and it is not good enough to throw our hands up in the air and say ‘oh, we  can’t negotiate because there is no one to negotiate with.’ There are lots of people we can talk to, but they need to stand up and lead their people too. If they don’t, we must be clear that the people who wish to demonstrate won’t engage, communicate or share what they intend to do with us, and so our policing tactics will have to be different… slightly more extreme.”


After Arthur Scargill’s flying pickets cause three-day-weeks and power cuts, Ted Heath calls his “Who Governs Britain?” election; the answer turns out to be Harold Wilson

The “winter of discontent”: public service strikes and piles of rubbish left uncollected on the streets for weeks (see left) feed the unpopularity of the Callaghan government—and its ousting by Margaret Thatcher

The poll tax riots, during which police on horseback are deployed against crowds, contribute to the sense that Thatcher has outstayed her welcome; within eight months she is out of Downing Street

Road haulier fuel tax protests attract high levels of popular support and cause widespread anxiety in government

Up to 2m people march against the Iraq war. The event has no immediate impact on policy, but contributes to the sense of the war’s unpopularity and irrevocably damages Tony Blair’s reputation.

The “left-wing Tea Party” demonstrates against tuition fees and government spending cuts. Will the internet generation join forces with organised labour to form a powerful new protest movement?

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  1. Top policeman has audacity to compare protesting with theft | Liberal Conspiracy01-28-11


Ed Howker

Ed Howker is a London-based writer 

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