Why Britain needs direct action

Britain is a democracy, with freedom of speech and the right to protest. There is no need to be 'disruptive' and uncivilized' in order to make your voice heard. What a comforting myth!
As the students come back to the streets to protest the government’s privatisation of universities, and the Occupy protest continues outside St Paul’s, mainstream politicians seem unprepared to concede that such direct and disruptive action is necessary or legitimate. Mainstream opinion offers little more than knee-jerk horror at occupied buildings, off route marches, the disruption of business as usual. 

While the right to protest is lauded as a great democratic institution, effective protest is condemned as anarchic, feral - beyond the pale. Matthew Parris summed up this sort of a view on the BBC:

“You can’t have a debate by people interrupting each other and shouting, you can’t have a debate by occupying areas, you have to have a debate in a civilized way.”
Those who resort to direct action, occupying public space, or buildings, or taking any kind of action that ruffles the well-groomed feathers of the establishment have lost the argument - it is felt. There is no need in a democracy to resort to disruptive tactics; we have freedom of speech: state your case. If you have a cogent argument, you will be heard.

It would be delightful if this were true. But it isn’t, and its constant repetition has become little more than a stick with which to beat down legitimate protests.

Let’s take the various components of the case against disruption. “State your case, a good argument will be heard.”  This is hopelessly naive. The best arguments have no particular power in politics. Policies are enacted because there is the power available to do so. Often this is done on the basis of demonstrably, at times embarrassingly, poor arguments – as with the reforms to higher education: the issue that sparked the student protests of last year, and the reason they were back out on the streets last week.

Here the government “won” the argument because they had a parliamentary majority, But this majority was achieved by the combined votes of one party that went in to the election promising to oppose all increases in tuition fees, and one party which did not include any mention of such planned increases in its manifesto. The government did not win the argument by persuading a majority of the public. Opinion polling from the autumn of 2010 showing opposition to the rise in tuition fees, and equivocation on the part of the electorate as to who should bear the burden of paying for university education.

It might be tempting to argue that while the public may not have been convinced, the government’s case was nevertheless rigorously rationally defended. They won the argument, perhaps, not in the court of public opinion, but in the court of “reason”. This was also not the case: a report from the independent Higher Education Policy Institute in November 2010 found that the reforms would not, as advertised, save the government money. And a debate raged about whether the reforms would further curtail social mobility. The government, then, did not conclusively win a battle of reasons.

So no argument was won, either on the basis of its achieving of popular support, or in the “court of reason”. There is therefore no reason for protesters to limit themselves to making good arguments in civilized tones. Good arguments alone are impotent.

But – we are told: at least you are free to state those arguments, and you can act on them at election time: we have the vote, and we have freedom of speech. These tools are the ones civilized people should use to oppose measures they dislike. This position too is based on myth and wishful thinking about the nature of our democracy. First, freedom of speech is not a right which is evenly distributed. In fact the types of opinions we hear and the frequency and force with which opinions are able to be expressed is heavily controlled by very few media outlets. The politicians know this, which is why they spent so much time having dinner with Rupert Murdoch.

More broadly, the media is dominated by centre-right publications. The three newspapers with the highest circulations in the UK are the Sun, the Mail and the Mirror. The former two consistently follow a right-wing line (even in the former case when they were supporting the Labour Party at election time). Figures from January 2011 show that the combined circulation of The Sun and the Mail is in excess of five million, whilst The Mirror scores just over 1 million. The left-leaning Guardian and the Independent (which both supported the centrist Liberal Democrats in the recent elections) each have vanishingly small circulation figures.

While it may not be hard to blog an anti-rightwing view, it is very hard to get serious coverage of such views in the mainstream media. The BBC’s recent programmes “Capitalism on Trial”, with the Thatcherite Michael Portillo placed in the position of trial judge rather sums up the state of affairs. Freedom to speak is not equally distributed, especially if we accept that ‘freedom to speak’ should involve not just speaking but being heard by those for whom your message is intended.

Finally – they say democracy precludes the necessity for direct, disruptive action because we all have a say, and if we don’t like what a government is doing we have the power to remove them through the ballot box. This too is a bad argument against direct action. First and most obviously, left wing people who live in safe Tory seats have no useful vote at all and the same is true for Tories in Labour strongholds. This results in more than 20m people lacking an effective vote.

Further: political parties are becoming increasingly adept at working around democratic accountability. Both the Coalition’s Healthcare reforms, and their Higher Education Policy emerged only after they had won an election. Indeed the Liberal Democrats went in to the election opposing the very reforms they subsequently endorsed. The people were given no opportunity to vote against higher fees, or against the marketisation of healthcare. Those who thought they had voted against higher tuition fees by voting Lib Dem saw their votes contributing to doing precisely the opposite of what they had wished for.

By the next election Coalition reforms will mean that students are already paying £9000 tuition fees, and the NHS is already colonized by private healthcare providers - beginning the long term destruction of a publicly owned health service. Such major reforms are very hard to undo. It took a World War to both expand Higher Education provision, and to wrestle healthcare from the private sector last time round. By the next election a vast amount of damage will have been done - and the changes will have become established parts of the political landscape. Democratic accountability might mean that the Coalition falls. But it won’t roll back the fee hikes or the privatisation. The vote is not enough!

Don’t be fooled by the old lies about the inevitable success of good arguments, or the power to effect change of British democracy allied to freedom of speech. Democracy may work like this on paper. It does not work like this in Britain today. Politicians, and their friends in business and banking have learned to manage democracy - to control the frames of the debate.

One of the few ways people have left to exercise power is to disrupt the veneer of good order and business as usual. Those who want a change from the “privatize everything and pay off the bankers” approach of all three mainstream parties should welcome and embrace the protests, that help to wake us up from our “civilized” conformity. The big business and the banks have the money, the lobbyists, the friends in government, the discrete dinners with the party leaders. What the rest of us have is the ability to scare and embarrass the politicians enough so they can’t ignore us. And we can’t do that by being good little boys and girls.

About the authors

Tom Akehurst teaches politics and history for the Open University and the University of Sussex. He co-authored a recent report on the student protests in Brighton, which is available here.

ANTI aspires to challenge the dominant discourse and make the radical common sense.