Sunday, 9 October 2011

Doth the Londoner protest too much?

The British are not well known for their political protests.  Globally we are better recognised for being polite (although alas this is something of a matter for individual opinion) and self-effacing, for knowing how to stand quietly and tidily in queues.  An inquiry about how someone is (particularly up North) will often be met with 'Mustn't grumble' or 'I can't complain', rather than 'Bloody awful actually', when that might be a more accurate response.  Our default setting is apology.  It's why things take so long to happen here.  It's why simple conversations last hours rather than minutes; it's the 'no, no, after you, please, I insist' effect.

Here in London this pattern breaks down somewhat.  Maybe it is the metropolitan nature of our urban community, the mixture of cultural norms and individual characters, which dilutes our national unwillingness to rock the boat.  Maybe it is simply due to the capital being where politicians and industry leaders, i.e. the source of many political grievances, reside.  In London political protest occurs everyday, both in the form of noisy event-based demonstrations and quieter, although not necessarily any less forceful, permanent resistance efforts. 

This year the student protest against the government's proposed hike in university fees left millions of pound of damage in the city, and alarmed businesses along the protest march route.  My own company now sends emails to all staff alerting them to any expected marches or protests, and alters security arrangements accordingly.  (I don't qualify the recent riots as political protest however; they were more of an illegal citywide supermarket sweep.)  Protests in earlier years, like the G20 march which turned sadly rather nasty, demonstrated the 'fairy ring-like' nature of political action in the city.  Springing up overnight the city is suddenly engulfed in protest for a day or so.  Chaos ensues as roads are blocked, public transport disrupted and police forces appear in force.  And then within 24-48 hours, life goes back to normal.  And the clean-up operation begins.  Then there is no trace of the protest, save newspaper cuttings and film footage.
A news van monitors the start of a student protest in Bloomsbury

Usually marches or protests take place around Westminster in Central London, however they often start at a particular organisations HQ; on university campuses, for example, or the administrative offices of trade unions.  I was recently surprised to encounter a hundred or so protesting students (and one raucous but unmusical trumpeter) in the British Museum.  Who, they thought, would be supportive of their protest in there is beyond me.  The milling tourists who were there to look at ancient tablets and artifacts simply looked rather confused.

Less disruptive to everyday life however are the quieter forms of protest which do not revolve around a particular event.  Numerous groups take a public stand to protest against ongoing wrongs they perceive in our country, from military intervention to trade standards.  Some even protest about political actions by foreign governments, such as the constant, yet silent, demonstration against the persecution of those who practice Falun Gong (a spiritual movement), by the Chinese government, outside the Chinese Embassy.  (Although their site is actually slap-bang on the doorstep of the Royal Institute of British Architects, so I'm not sure if the true source of the grievance is feeling the force of the protest.  It may be being wasted on a bunch of building professionals.)  A fearsome bunch of ladies surrounds a memorial opposite the National Portrait Gallery, declaring themselves as members of Women in Black, a global movement that renounces violence and recognises the deeply gendered experience of conflict.  They keep a weekly vigil near St Martin in the Fields Church, each week with a different theme, and circulate information to anyone who will take their fliers or stop and talk to them.

Every tourist who visits Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament will have noticed an encampment of raggedy tents and signs around Parliament Square.  This is all that remains of 'Democracy Village' (most inhabitants of which were finally evicted last year), established primarily in response to the UK armed forces' involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.  People lived here for years, using megaphones to broadcast their cause and leafletting passersby (often again, somewhat bemused tourists).  One particularly fervent anti-war campaigner spent over 10 years living in Parliament Square, and became an icon of protest in London.  Sadly, this man, Brian Haw, died earlier this year and the erection of a blue plaque on the square has been called for in his honour.  Boris Johnson, London's mayor, paid a rather lovely tribute to him which also sums up why people do protest, as reported in The Guardian: "Brian Haw, the father of seven, anti-war loony who used to bellow at me on my bicycle...I thought his posters and general gubbins were a disgrace and spoiled the look of the place; and yet he...represented something dementedly British...Across the world, Britain still stands for a certain idea of liberty, a particular concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state."  This relationship and this liberty must surely be what is worth protesting about.


  1. Well, in my humble opinion, things have changed but the Brits still have a lot to learn in terms of protests in general and strikes in particular. I remember being told that there was going to be a Tube strike. Being French, I was deeply concerned that I might not be able to go to the office. Then, I found out that there was one train every 4 to 10 mins. In France, strikes means = NO trains whatsoever. You have got to love the Brits!

  2. So true - no one does political protest like the French. You guys are pros, Muriel. Teach us how to do it properly!


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