Protesting For What?

Protests in central London in response to the unexpected result of the British General Election have attracted condemnation – as well as enthusiastic professions of solidarity – in recent days. The vandalisation of a Second World War memorial during the “anti-austerity march” was met with outrage from most. And yet some sage commentators suggested glibly that the real vandals were those who had been returned to government with a small but very surprising majority. Such an event is not particularly remarkable in itself.

However, there are a few issues worth exploring in relation to these demonstrations. It’s been argued that those who regard these skirmishes as ungracious so soon after an election whose result isn’t really disputed – except by people like George Galloway – are really attempting to deny ordinary citizens the right to voice their displeasure. Of course, that’s not the case. But those who criticise protesters’ behaviour have every right to do so in the strongest terms, just as peaceful protesters (who don’t resort to vandalism to get attention) are exercising their rights. It should be clear that to point out that it’s strange to take indignantly to the streets before much legislation has even been mooted is not to say you shouldn’t be able to do so.

But there’s been something else, too. Almost any photograph of these marches has featured stout SWP placards exhorting: “Get the Tories Out!” Perhaps that’s just rhetoric. But the implication is pretty arresting: (something like) “We’ve just had an election but unfortunately some rather selfish, stupid people voted the wrong way. I suppose we’ll have to try something else”. I am not arguing that everybody brandishing one of the SWP’s fatuous signs holds the democratic process in contempt, but it does suggest a somewhat unreflective mind.

And more broadly, if you are convinced that the principal reason you believe what you do is because you are compassionate and empathetic rather than venal and solipsistic you may well reach this undemocratic conclusion. You might reason that something has gone badly wrong, that the country has suffered a moral rupture. A familiar trope across social media has been the pompous, indignant musing “who are these Tory voters?” As though they ought to be identifiable by their horns or fangs.

When you put yourself firmly in a different moral category to your fellow citizens (not criminals or cheats, but simply people who voted differently) then you must feign – or perhaps really feel – incredulity at their behaviour. Is this not a troubling mental state to find yourself in?

I have to say that I feel queasy about what seem like large reductions in welfare spending; though I also know that benefit payments are often difficult to understand and the whole system rather complex. The Manichean view of British politics that is becoming more and more modish though – perhaps especially among the young – is all the more ludicrous considering the very large swathe of consensus in the political centre ground. Labour does not dispute the need to eradicate the deficit and nor does it repudiate the need for welfare spending to be reduced; to the extent that the NHS is being privatised (which it isn’t in any meaningful way) that process was begun by the last Labour government; and Milibands’ and Cameron’s immigration policies were very difficult to parse.

That isn’t to say that the parties are so similar as to be identical, of course. But the notion that the result of the General Election represents the harbinger of an existential fight for the soul of the country is preposterous.

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