By Stuart Roger
Phew! Thank God that’s over. 100 hours of community service for disrupting a speech David Cameron was giving in Scotland, as an act of protest against his epicly unjust, epicly unnecessary programme of public spending cuts. As I’ve doing it, I have been reflecting on the political value of what I did, but I’ll come back to that in a second.
What, in normal circumstances, would you call someone who throws people out of their homes; who mugs the elderly; who kicks the homeless when their down; who takes food from the mouths of the hungry, and who engages in a massive smash and grab job?
David Cameron is a glorified thug. All of those things are happening – but they’re being carried by Her Majesty’s Government under the guise of ‘deficit-reduction’ that we are relentlessly told is necessary. He has slashed the Winter Fuel Allowance, which keeps Britain’s elderly warm though the winter months. He has slashed the budget for helping the homeless – and homelessness has risen by 25% as a result. He promised no top-down re-organization of the NHS – but then went on to hand it over to private consortia under the Health and Social Care Bill, memorably described by Oliver Huitson as ‘most audacious smash and grab raid on a national asset in memory’.
That’s why David Cameron should be doing community service. I mean, seriously, think of the good it would do him. It would help him develop his currently non-existent social conscience. (Perhaps this is unfair – David Cameron does have a social conscience, it just doesn’t extend much beyond his social milieu of Britain’s richest and most privileged people.)
But really. One of the places I helped re-decorate is an old miners’ club, now functioning as a community centre – looking around the village, the deprivation was obvious. It might have prompted him to reflect on the social consequences of Thatcher and Major’s shut-down of 150 of Britain’s mines, leaving communities in almost total-ruin. Another of the places I helped re-decorate was a respite centre for adults with severe learning disabilities, intended to help give their carers a break. It was entirely council funded and run – sure to be given the chop when the cuts bite. I was out litter-picking a fair few days as well, and it reminded me of that comic strip in the opening pages of The Spirit Level with someone driving along a road littered with garbage and pollution: ‘I just got a $200,000 tax cut… I love this country!… But why is it such a dump?!’ It might finally click: this public sector thingy is precious, and needs to be defended. (And perhaps several hours unpaid labour would make him realise just what a massive scandal mandatory work activity really is)
But, sadly, we don’t – yet – live in a world so just. That’s why I did what I did. The reason I decided to disrupt his speech that day was because – so often with protest and activism – you rely on ripple effects and intermediaries in the form of the media to pass on your message. And for sure, that matters, and I think that eventually works. But there’s no denying the process is often slow, and painful, and frustrating. So when you’ve got the leader of a government you are emphatically opposed to there in front of you – you need to confront them aggressively. And I am glad I’ve registered my rage with him directly.
And will it help stop the cuts? I don’t know, honestly. But when I asked Tim Gee – author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen – what value there was in my action, he said the anti-cuts movements needs to ‘toxify’ Cameron – and stunts like mine help in doing that. It helps get rid of the sheen of political legitimacy. It increases the political noise.
I am a very firm believer in activism limiting the damage that governments do – that we may not be able to stop the bastards doing everything, but we can stop them doing some things. Protest sets political boundaries. Obviously, the goal is to stop the assaults full stop and (often) push governments in the opposite direction. But we can console ourselves with this knowledge.
My biggest concern is the effect my community service has had on other activists – that it may have put people off doing the odd media-stunt. The truth is we need more of them. I would live to point out that I received community service after doing such a stunt for the second time. Presumably, the Sheriff was of the view that a £200 fine – my first punishment – didn’t teach me my lesson.
But there’s no denying it’s a burden. But for me the choice is quite simple. One the one hand, you have the burden of a decimated public sector, and all the social problems and misery that will bring. Or you have the burden of fighting back – sometimes engaging in a form of protest that might get you arrested and get you a fine or two. I know what burden I’d rather choose. What about you?