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Who goes there?

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
22 October 2002

While our election coverage ranges from Serbia and Ireland to Brazil, an unplanned debate on protest has broken out on openDemocracy. It is mainly British in its examples at the moment but it has wide significance and will grow in global relevance if the US persists in its Iraq policy.

It is added to in this issue with Douglas Murray’s assault on those who marched through London to ‘stop the war’ in alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain, whose aims he diagnoses as incompatible with peace.

Who should protest? How far is it legitimate in a democracy for protestors to influence policy?

As John Down shows in his comparative survey, three different sections of the British adding up to more than 1 per cent of the whole country took to the streets of London within 150 hours of each other.

The argument started when Roger Scruton attacked Adam Lent’s discussion of what this means. Roger claims that 1960s style demonstrators with their ‘carnival of transgressions’ are ideologically-motivated movements unlike the Countryside Alliance march he was on. He sees the Alliance as representing genuine people who are trying to protect themselves. The fact that they do not normally do so means their protest is the real thing.

While the other lot are part of the ‘protesting classes… moved more by ideas than by real and threatened interests’.

Lent seems to agree, he also disparages the sixties for its ideological excitement, but then defends the social movements that followed because they expressed actual interests, such as those of as women or gays.

Yes, people must be able to express their sectional concerns, whether rural, trade union or gender. But why should sectional selfishness have a more real claim on us than a principled argument?

Protest can also be true and wise when it is moved by issues greater than immediate self-interest. As a sixties veteran I’m proud that I did my bit to help stop the disgraceful, indeed criminal war in Vietnam.

If government policy is wrong and media coverage compliant and the fate of the world is at stake, then the more vigorous and intelligent the ‘protesting classes’ are the better.

Indeed, the forces of globalisation, which include intensified local passions, demand new kinds of democratic accountability and representation. As John Down points out, ‘Protest is changing, incorporating new segments of society… But democracy is not.’ It needs to do so.

Anthony Barnett

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