Don’t let the coalition crush Democracy Village

Protest is sometimes messy and sometimes inconvenient, but it remains a fundamental freedom.

It may strike readers as rather ironic that, on the day the Queen arrived at the seat of our democracy to deliver her speech at the State Opening of Parliament, police outside in Parliament Square made their presence felt in the Democracy Village that has sprung up there, searching tents for "bombs" (peace campaigners armed with bombs? The ironies just keep on coming!) and arresting the long-term peace campaigner Brian Haw -- all amid echoes of our new government's commitment to civil liberties.

Even before taking office, David Cameron declared that a Conservative government would attempt to remove Haw and his fellow protesters. But he was also at great pains to point out that he is "all in favour of free speech and the right to demonstrate and the right to protest". However, it's the "shanty-town tents" in the square that have led him to conclude that "enough is enough".

The appearance of Democracy Village has meant that others have joined in the call to clear the square. Colin Barrow, leader of Westminster City Council, has been particularly vocal. This is the same Colin Barrow currently facing calls for an inquiry over business dealings of his which have left the council owed £20,000.

I don't know about you, but I'm reassured by the constant declaration by those who want the protesters gone of their commitment to the principle of free speech -- that's the one enshrined in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, to give it its full title. And I think we can safely assume, too, that these same people cherish just as fervently the right to freedom of assembly and association, also enshrined in the convention.

"Fundamental freedoms". "Fundamental" -- defined by the dictionary as "vital", "elemental", "crucial" and "indispensable". These freedoms are rightly considered the very bedrock of a healthy democracy. They are its lifeblood, because, without them, democracy dies. In fact, so important are these rights that constant vigilance is required, lest they be eroded by those for whom protest is inconvenient or threatening. And we must recognise that those who would attempt to do this immediately bring their fidelity to the ideals of democracy into question.

But what might our politicians find so threatening about Democracy Village? Let me see . . . perhaps that it is prominently protesting against the war in Afghanistan (which all the main parties support) and is vowing not to leave until British troops are brought home? Let's not forget that anyone opposed to the war was not represented by any of the three main parties during the election, and that a recent poll revealed 77 per cent of the British public want the troops brought home. Who, then, is more aligned with democracy? The politicians in parliament -- or the protesters outside its hallowed walls?

"Democracy" -- this is defined as "the common people, considered as the primary source of political power". "The people" -- hey, that's us! We are the "primary source of political power" in our democracy.

But alas, we have lost sight of the direction in which power should flow. So brainwashed are we that we allow our servants to dictate to us when and where we can protest against them! They even draft laws making it illegal to do so without their permission! Absurd!

The residents of Democracy Village however, have not lost sight of the real definition of democracy. They understand it very well -- and far better than those wishing to sweep them away in order to silence critical voices. They are giving us all a precious lesson in its true meaning if we only had eyes to see and ears to hear. They are safeguarding our democracy for us even in the face of insult, ridicule, ignorance and state oppression. Brian Haw, the man who has sat in wind, rain and snow for nine years straight to protest the slaughter and carnage of our wars has the kind of integrity that those who have tried every trick in the book to evict him will never possess.

You see, protest is sometimes messy; it's sometimes noisy and inconvenient, but weighed in the balance any disruption pales into insignificance compared to the priceless freedom it represents -- a freedom that protects us all. Parliament Square: what better place to fight for democracy, in the shadow of Mandela and among the ghosts of suffragettes? As the film-maker and long-term reporter on protest there, Rikki Blue, commented this week:

Protesting in Parliament Square is not a party, it's not a joke -- it's a hard-won, heart-felt struggle in the face of draconian laws put in place by arrogant and so-far untouchable politicians (who) are seeking any excuse to clear the square of the protest that daily reminds them what war criminals most of them are.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era