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Laurie Penny on how protest is being outlawed

The message from the Alfie Meadows case is clear: if you protest, the police can do what they like to you.

New York

Alfie Meadows still hasn't grown his hair back. When they rushed him into theatre for emergency brain surgery after his injury in a demonstration against the tripling of university fees, doctors shaved the 20-year-old's shoulder-length locks, the style that announces to the world "I am a philosophy student". Now the thatch is gone, exposing a hand-length scar across his skull, he looks much younger. Thin and shy with eyes that dart downwards, Meadows speaks rarely, and never about his legal case against the Metropolitan police officers who his lawyers claim nearly killed him. This week he goes on trial for violent disorder for his actions that day, a charge that could land him in jail.

The message being sent may as well have been printed on official police stationary and distributed outside the court: in protest situations, police are never in the wrong. Meadows is among the most high profile of dozens of protesters who have been tried for serious public order offences over the past eighteen months. As emergency measures against public assembly and popular protest are passed in time for the Olympics, any political direct action more energetic than standing silently with a few signs in designated areas is becoming functionally illegal in Britain.

The narrative of public dissent is being rewritten with astonishing speed. As police continue to crack heads with impunity, peaceful protesters are handed down harsh deterrent charges. Ten defendants in the Fortnum and Mason trial were recently given six-month suspended sentences for aggravated trespass, essentially for standing around in a grocery shop with some leaflets. I was there at the time, and the worst I saw was some slogans against corporate tax avoidance being carefully wrapped on printed ticker-tape around large stacks of Earl Grey tea. For those swept up in last year's riots, meanwhile, there hasn't been a crumb of mercy. As I write, teenagers are still in prison for creating Facebook events.

Whatever we think about how these young people behaved, we should have the decency to call them what they are: political prisoners. That this government has run out of ideas for enforcing austerity beyond frightening people into compliance may be of little comfort to those whose young lives and job prospects will be blighted by deterrent jail sentences.

As with music and angular haircuts, so with public order policing -- the Americans are at least a year behind us in keeping up with the latest trends. This week, during another brutal crackdown on Occupy Wall Street, skulls were stomped on, heads were cracked into windows and journalists were dragged or shoved away from the scene as anti-capitalist protesters attempted to peacefully reoccupy Zucotti Park, site of the original encampment that drew international attention last September.

From behind hastily-erected police barricades, I watched as a curly-haired girl in green appeared to begin having a seizure during her arrest, flopping about on the pavement with her hands cuffed and passing out more than once before police eventually allowed an ambulance behind the lines. As she was stretchered away, protesters standing near me speculated that the NYPD would have to put the girl -- later identified as 23-year-old Cecily McMillan -- on a felony charge to "get out of this one".

Sure enough, McMillan was released into custody the next day and charged with assaulting a police officer, a crime that could see her serving over a year in prison. I thought of Alfie Meadows, whose trial in London will send the same message to anyone thinking of joining the cultural backlash against austerity and kamikaze capitalism. If you protest, the police can do what they like to you. Any sort of public dissent can and will be met with force. You chose to protest, so you asked for it. Next time, make it easy on yourself -- sit down, shut up and stay at home.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

Photo: Getty
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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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