Now is the time for middle-aged activism

When you’re a teenager you’re angry about everything, without necessarily knowing why. Steven Baxter suggests that it’s time for the grown-up teenagers to get properly angry – the kind of anger that comes with intimate knowledge of everything that’s gone

It's strange how life hands you chances to do things you never thought you'd do again, but there I was on Saturday, on the lower end of an 8ft helium balloon, marching through Manchester to protest about the state of the NHS. Before then, my previous protesting experience, as a punter rather than an observer, came back in the 1990s, before my young mind had even had the chance to be disappointed by New Labour, protesting Michael Howard's Criminal Justice Bill.

Back then, as a callow, long-haired teenager in that awkward space between A-levels and a City and Guilds, protesting seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. The Government were taking away our Right to Rave, and we were Angry. Angry with a Capital A. We yelled, we chanted, we threw stuff (actually, I didn't; I left Hyde Park "before it all kicked off" to get home early for my dinner, but you know what I mean). We blew whistles. We read the Socialist Worker. We screamed and we bawled. We were young, and we thought it all meant something. Hell, maybe it did.

When you're a teenager you're pretty angry about everything. Politics is just one of the many thousands of things that seem utterly and irrevocably unfair; you gravitate towards it because you might as well find one more thing to complain about. Teenagers are built to rebel against nothing they can define because they simply must; at least, with political activism, it makes more sense, or seemed to at the time.

It might sound like I'm about to dismiss campaigning and protesting as something somehow callow or a phase you have to go through, but I'm not. In fact, I'm beginning to think quite the opposite. The teenagers are right to be angry. I don't know if they know they're right, or if they're just angry and happen to have stumbled on the right mood for our times, but I am more and more convinced of the righteousness of their cause.

The older I get, the more it's beginning to make sense again - the grumpiness, the anger, the disobedience. Maybe now is the time to get back involved, in a kind of middle-aged activism, the kind of anger that comes from knowing just what a miserable, lying professional foul the world is, and how much better it could be.

So there we were, marching through Manchester, a ragtag-and-bobtail collective of trade unionists, activists, protesters and - it irks to say this, but I'm very much afraid it is true - the Usual Suspects. Yes, SW were there. Yes, I got offered a paper. Yes, someone handed me a leaflet about The Death of Trotsky. Yes, there were calls for a General Strike, which will garner the well-meaning movement about as much public sympathy as a slap in the face. Yes yes yes, all of that, but wait: it's easy to dismiss this kind of stuff by looking at the clichés and thinking it represents a simplistic identikit of the aims and objectives of those who dare question the happy neoliberal consensus of austerity first, everything else later. But what if they're right? What if it is worth stopping the NHS from slipping into the meat-grinder? What if there is a better way than cutting everything, privatising everything and outsourcing everything?

It wasn't just us making a noise (thank you, PCS samba band) that chilly Saturday: there were others taking to the streets, for UKUncut to protest Starbucks' buffet tax options, against the Scientology shop in town, and so on. A lot of people are angry. A lot more, you might argue, ignored all the fuss, the noise, the banners and balloons; they carried on sipping their dishwater lattes and filling their heaving plastic bags with Christmas shopping gifts now, playing chicken with the overdraft limit later.

True enough, I suppose. There is apathy everywhere, and maybe only pockets of activism to try and stir the bewildered Christmas shoppers from their numb slumber of melting plastic and payday loan sharks. I don't know if the tide is turning, or if anything will change anytime soon due to getting out on the streets and making a noise about it.

But. oh, I don't know. When we come to look back on this time, when everything relatively decent that we managed to get from the postwar settlement was dismantled and chucked away, do I want to think I didn't do anything about it? Or can I, at least, say that I did something, that I stood up and I said, enough is enough?

Even if it is just a feeble attempt to save what can't be saved, I think you have to try. Probably the teenage me, who took part in that other protest all those decades ago, wouldn't understand, but I do: you have to try. Not because you think you'll win, but because you simply have to try. Because if you don't, the only person you can blame for the way your world turned out is yourself.

Get marching.

 

If you don't try, who will you blame for how the world works out? Photograph: Getty Images
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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