Beyond the spectacle

How can the anti-cuts movement break through the media’s short attention span?

Violence is good television; peace is not. The people who smash things know this. They aren't necessarily natural vandals who would go around breaking windows or setting fire to pallets – though let's not rule that out – but they know the best way to be looked at is to break something. The naughty child in a classroom who always plays up gets the most attention from the teacher, while everyone else working quietly can be ignored.

It's the same reason why terrorists try to blow up aeroplanes rather than organising 200 separate fatal car crashes: one will make the news worldwide, the other will not. Break something, charge a police line, chuck a brick, arrange a colourful stunt – you'll get coverage, while thousands of people can march peacefully along in the background, completely ignored.

News channels think that footage of someone smashing a window or chucking paint at Top Shop are more interesting to their viewers than staring at Ed Miliband's face. They may be right. As Charlie Beckett says, we shouldn't necessarily go blaming the media if the "wrong" messages are taken away from an event by news outlets. The rolling news channels think their viewers are like dozing, elderly, half-blind cats who need a poke in the ribs and a bit of wool dangled in their whiskers before they get interested; they've either hugely miscalculated their audience, or they know them all too well.

The short attention span of the viewer, fingers forever poised over the remote control, demands that excitement be maintained in whatever way is possible. The sight of things being smashed is sexier to look at than tens of thousands of peaceful protesters slowly processing along a prearranged marching route. After a few seconds, you get banner fatigue, and quickly start wondering what's on the other channel.

None of this is a glib dismissal of Saturday's March for the Alternative, or an assertion that it was all a waste of time; the event was a coming together of many different groups with a range of viewpoints, sharing common ground over a way forward that doesn't have to involve the savagery of cuts planned by the coalition government. It was a wonderful show of feeling and determination, and could prove to be a springboard for a wider grass-roots movement. But the difficulty in getting the message across, without having your peaceful protest hijacked by rent-a-mob or having your movement tainted by the actions of unconnected others, is evident.

So what impression are we left with, those of us who didn't attend? Do we think of the thousands of smiling faces, the high spirits, the masses of families and individuals getting together for a shared cause? Or are we left with the sinister fag-end of the day's events – the reports of light bulbs filled with ammonia or fireworks stuffed with coins, the "anarchists" and troublemakers, regardless of what relation they had to the vast majority of protesters?

Where the anti-cuts movement goes from here, and how it conveys its aims, will determine its success. Building a broad grass-roots movement takes time, effort and hard work, most of which is going to happen away from the cameras, away from big events like Saturday's, away from the troubleseekers and troublemakers, too. That's where the battle will be won or lost.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser