Not everyone is happy about the Olympics

Protesters march against the corporate takeover of the Games.

It's a bright, sunny July afternoon and the descendants of victims of a 19th-century genocide march while performing their traditional “sreedom joug” dance to the beat of a protesting drummer. Glowing banners dance to a cacophony of horns, whistles and furious chants.

 
The Olympics are in town, and not everyone is happy. From Occupy London to the Green Party, over 35 organisations and 400 people marched across East London on Saturday against a range of issues linked to the games – from the militarisation of London to the corporatisation of the games and the building of future Olympic sites on the graves of genocide victims.
 
The diversity of the crowd's demands mirror the crowd itself: Refugee networks, environmentalists, charity workers and anti-war campaigners were among those fighting to be heard. Emily Coats, 24, a campaigner with environmentalist group UK Tar Sands Network, opposes the corporate sponsorship of the games by what she claims are unethical companies such as BP. “BP really has no right to be called a sustainability partner yet the Olympics gives it a great opportunity to try and convince the public that it's a really green, sustainable, good company.”
 
The government's austerity programme figures in protesters' objections, too. Mary Stuart, 54, an English tutor, said: “People are killing themselves every week because their benefits are being cut. I'm furious about it, and that's why I'm here.”
 
Civil liberties are also a concern, with more than 18,000 troops deployed for the games. Andreas Speck, 48, a campaigner for War Resistance International, takes issue with the restrictions on civil liberties during the Olympics. “I am here today to protest against the Olympics and the restrictions on our civil liberties which we have seen.” While Haci Ozdemir, 36, a campaigner with the Refugee Workers Cultural Association, marches against what he claims is corporate profiteering at the expense of local Londoners. “The local people will not benefit from them [the Olympics] when huge businesses are making money.”
 
Later in the afternoon, the protesters are herded together by police. They stop the protest on Vincent Road in Bow, to ensure that protesters do not spread too far apart when marching at different speeds. The marchers are peaceful, and cooperate with the them. Yet the marchers maintain solidarity when one of their comrades is stopped and searched by the police. Four officers, surrounded by around 40 protesters, form a cordon around the man while he is searched next to a wall. The marchers towards the rear of the crowd stop and wait for the man to be released.
 
“Let him go!” roars the crowd repeatedly. After a few minutes, a police officer announces to the crowd, “This man will be returned very shortly.” A protester shouts “the march will wait for him!” And wait it does. The man, who calls himself "Danny", says of the search:  “It was fine. I didn't really mind too much to tell the truth.”
 
Counter Olympics Network spokesman David Renton thinks the peaceful nature of the protest explains why it received “vast” coverage from international media but scant attention from the British press. “This demonstration has been entirely peaceful. Because there hasn't been a fight it stands against the way our media culture reacts to demonstrators: if there is a fight, there is a story, if there is no fight then no story." The international media presence is humbling – journalists from different organisations clashes while trying to interview the same people. The world hears the marchers.
 
But not all protesters marched solely against London 2012. NoSochi2014 is an organisation of Circassians opposed to the 2014 Winter Olympic stadium being built in Sochi, the city in their ancestral homeland which they occupied before the 19th-century Russian genocide against them. NoSochi2012 claim the site will be built on the grave sites of their murdered ancestors.
 
Lisa Jakarsi, an activist with NoSochi2014, says the group is at the protest to raise awareness about the 2014 games. “We're here to raise awareness about our plight. Basically they are building the [2014 Winter] Olympic stadiums on the graves of the Circassian genocide.”
 
Campaigning Labour MP John McDonnell for Hayes and Harlington marches alongside the activists. “I am in favour of the Olympics. I support sport. I enjoy sport. I enjoy the Olympics. What I am against is the corporate exploitation of the Olympics." McDonnell says he wanted the march to raise awareness. “I want people to start understanding the issue and debating the issue – about what the Olympics are all about.”
Protesters in east London marching against the Olympics on 28 July (Photo: Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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