Democracy Village was an embodiment of people power

The camp was more than a collection of tents -- it was an idea. Protest is a vital part of the democ

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Democracy Village in Parliament Square -- the "shanty town", as David Cameron called it when he vowed to remove it before being elected -- was evicted.

Democracy Village had been derided by certain politicians and in the mainstream media as an eyesore afflicting an important public space, but make no mistake, the government and the Greater London Authority knew only too well the real threat posed by it -- and it had nothing to do with messy public spaces. They knew that the Village was far more than a ramshackle encampment. It was something that could not be tolerated -- an embodiment of genuine people power.

Here were citizens challenging the cover stories on illegal wars; here were people refusing to swallow the greenwash of the governments that failed us in Copenhagen; here were people free from the influence of the mainstream corporate media from which most people construct their world-view; here were those free from any form of propaganda government evangelists spew out.

Here, the discourse had no invisible boundaries. And when people can no longer be manipulated, when they have become immune to all artful attempts to quieten them, when they are not motivated by the attainment of money or power, when they are unafraid of arrest or imprisonment, then they have become truly free, and it is this state of profound "awakeness" that made the villagers so "dangerous".

Democracy Village was not an isolated group of political "extremists" as some would have you believe. If we were, then the majority of the British people are also extremists for wanting our troops brought home, as the latest polls show.

If we who want real action on climate change rather than compromises that allow continued devastation are extremist, then so are the millions of ordinary people who want a sustainable future for their children. If the ideas of fairness and justice we espouse are extremist, then we have finally entered an Orwellian nightmare.

What is "extreme" in this hall of mirrors we call civilised society is our willingess to "be the change [we] want to see in the world", as Mahatma Gandhi said, to proclaim the truth and have it called blasphemy by those who fear the end of their influence.

Boris Johnson was "worried" about the effect of Democracy Village on tourists. Was he worried by the effect on tourists of watching peaceful protesters being hauled into police vans for reading out the names of our soldiers killed in Iraq?

What tends to be forgotten is that protest is a vital part of the democratic process. As the acclaimed historian Howard Zinn astutely observed, we are apt to forget that advances in social justice have been brought about, not by politicians, but by ordinary people putting pressure on them until change could no longer be denied. This is when laws are changed and civilisation takes another step forward.

Laws cannot stand for all time; if they did, then we could have no moral progress, because laws only reflect the dominant values of the times in which they are created. Therefore, it was once legal to own slaves, to deny women the vote, to discriminate against a person because they were black . . . everything done in Nazi Germany was perfectly legal.

We have become strangers to our own history; we have become divorced from our own power and our true identity as sovereign citizens. Civil disobedience has a long and honourable tradition in this country, and Parliament Square has been at the very heart of it, from the suffragettes to the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. We followed that proud tradition; it is those who removed us who betrayed it, as Tony Benn made clear to the high court during the legal case. Parliament Square was created to allow the British people to petition the House of Commons, and that is what we gathered to do.

We heeded the calls at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009 to set up people's assemblies worldwide in June 2010: we started early and set one up on 1 May. Since then we have received support from individuals across the political spectrum -- Conservative and Labour MPs, current and ex-servicemen, trade union members and students, as well as overwhelming backing from the people of London and tourists from many countries.

Our diverse groups share many common goals, including peace, justice and a sustainable future for the planet, and we are respectful of the differences between us. In spite of our differences, we had unity through the diversity of our opinions, and worked constantly for tolerance of all ideas expressed. We sought to embody the words of Voltaire: "I may not like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Democracy Village as a camp is now gone. But, as we have tried to show, it was far more than a collection of tents -- it is an idea. And ideas cannot be moved on, nor can they be locked up or in any other way confined.

As Henry Thoreau noted from the prison cell where he had been sent for non-payment of poll tax:

I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous.

So it matters not that Boris and Cameron have had their way for now -- the idea is alive and well and, as Victor Hugo understood, "No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come."

We will be meeting this Saturday, 24 July, for a People's Assembly (between 1pm and 6pm) at Victoria Tower Gardens, just next to parliament. Join us!

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.