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.

Special offer: get 12 issues of the New Statesman for just £5.99 plus a free copy of "Liberty in the Age of Terror" by A C Grayling.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle