The Despair Doesn't Come From The Marchers
As the cuts bite and voters hurt more, the more the government stands to lose
The whiff of failure hung over yesterday's march in London against the coalition's austerity programme. But whose failure was it: the protesters or those they protested against?
As the demonstrators set off from the Embankment, they could have been forgiven for believing that journalists were contractually obliged to decide the issue in advance and write them off as losers. "Protest never changes anything," cried writers who don't want anything to change. "Opposition to the cuts is futile," added columnists on private health schemes. Most of the protesters were public sector workers, and conventional wisdom has forgotten that our current crisis was caused by the most reckless and avaricious bankers the private sector has ever produced, not the teachers, nurses and firefighters the government is forcing to carry the blame.
The Museum of London added to the sense that someone was going to end up as a footnote to history by showing memorabilia from 20th-century demonstrations on the Embankment's railings. There lay the debris of many a forlorn hope: posters from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, whose delusions were exposed when the Berlin Wall came down; slogans from the pay disputes of the 1970s, which ended not with workers' power but with Thatcher power; and, to cap it all, the placard of one Stanley Green, who stood outside Oxford Street tube station for a quarter of century urging shoppers to shun "meat fish bird, egg cheese, peas, beans and nuts" and heed his warning that protein caused lust.
What better symbol of the crankiness of the current protests against economic orthodoxy could David Cameron and Nick Clegg wish for? They would have no difficulty, I am sure, in portraying the TUC, which organised the march, as a similarly quaint relic.
By the time of the last election, the attraction of the Labour movement had become so weak that a large section of the leftish middle class felt no qualms about going off with the Liberal Democrats. Only now are they sneaking back with the innocent expression of delinquent children, who hope the grown-ups won't notice that they have wrecked the family home.
In the wider population, the unions hold even less sway. Public opinion remains on the government's side. A majority believes that spending cuts and tax rises are necessary responses to a horrific budget deficit and many hold Labour rather than the coalition responsible for the Britain's ills.
Yet public opinion changes and alongside the effusions of CND and Stanley Green (sadly no longer with us for all his avoidance of lust) were posters that ought to make ministers pause. I spotted one from the suffragettes, who were unpopular in their day, but won in the end, and another from the opponents of poll tax, who helped bring Margaret Thatcher down.
They taught lessons that many do not want to hear: that protests are not always pointless and arguments are not always settled in Westminster and Fleet Street.
Brendan Barber of the TUC gave me one reason why voters may turn. They do not yet realise how severe the loss of services will be for the 90% of the population who have no option but to depend on the state for their healthcare, children's education and relief in hard times. Nor have they considered that the Conservatives and Liberals will hand over much of what's left of the public sector to corporations seeking to imitate the rail companies and build private monopolies at public expense.
Everyone I interviewed could defend themselves by appealing to national rather than sectional interests. They did not talk about protecting public sector pensions (a doomed cause in my view) but about how shabby and mean Britain will be by the time this government has finished with them and the citizens they serve. They were outraged and expected the rest of the population to become outraged with them. But on its own outrage will not be enough. The 2010s resemble the 1930s and 1980s, a decade ofrecession and insecurity presided over by a right-wing government.
If you rely on the leftish novels and dramas of the past or BBC history documentaries, you will never understand why the right won in 1931 and 1935 (and would have won again in 1940 had war not broken out) and then repeated the trick in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections. The 1930s was not all Jarrow hunger marches and Love on the Dole. Miners' strikes and The Boys From the Blackstuff do not begin to tell the story of the 1980s. Away from the coalfields and metal-bashing towns, most people – or at least enough people to return Conservative governments – did well. They bought their own homes, saw their living standards rise and could help their children enjoy better opportunities than had been offered to them.
The bitter lesson of recessionary times in Britain is that rightwing governments can survive and prosper despite mass unemployment as long as the majority are surviving and prospering with them. The coalition hopes to repeat the success of its predecessors. It believe it can pile spending cuts and tax rises on to a weak economy and by a mysterious alchemical process no one but initiates understands private enterprise will boom and provide the jobs and income to change Britain into a rich country with a small state.
Someone really should borrow Sarah Palin's question and ask David Cameron: "How's that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?"
Not too well, and the coalition's incompetence means that the 1930s and 1980s may not be a reliable guide to the future. Economists now compete to see who can issue the gloomiest forecast. The pressure on household budgets is the worst since the 1970s, says the Institute for Fiscal Studies. No, no, no, declares Mervyn King, not since the 1920s have real wages lagged so far behind prices. The millions who do not dream of chanting socialist slogans on TUC demos but of more money in their pockets and a decent future for their children are hurting. The longer they hurt the more willing they will be to believe that a naive government has made a crashing blunder.
As I watched the marchers pass through the old imperial centre of London, by Parliament, the Treasury, Downing Street and into Pall Mall's clubland, I confess I caught a whiff of failure, a smell that could grow into a stink that may afflict the nostrils of the whole country. And it did not come from the demonstrators.