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London calls the street rebels

The global justice movement is back in town – and planning the biggest rally since the Iraq War marc

As the heads of government of the G20 nations prepare to convene for the crisis summit in London’s Docklands on Thursday 2 April, a political movement which ten years ago seemed to be sweeping all before it, yet hit a brick wall a few years later, may once again make the political running. The global justice movement is back in town.

“This isn’t going to be another Stop the War moment, where a huge march is held, the government ignores it and everyone goes home depressed,” says Nick Dearden of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, one of those responsible for what the organisers hope will be the biggest public rally since the anti-war march of 2003 (the event takes place on Saturday 28 March). “And it’s not going to be another Make Poverty History, where the rock stars meet the world leaders and everyone makes promises and nothing happens. This is a serious coalition with a serious agenda, and we’re in it for the long term.”

The coalition to which Dearden refers is a new alliance of unions, non-governmental organisations and religious groups, armed with a manifesto that aims to rewrite the rules of the global economy. Put People First has already created a significant alliance – more than a hundred groups, ranging from Greenpeace to the Dalit Solidarity Network via the NUJ and the Muslim Council of Britain, have so far signed up.

“Put People First only began life back in November,” Dearden says. “A group of NGOs involved in what you might call the ‘economic justice movement’ – groups like Jubilee Debt, the Bretton Woods Project and the Trade Justice Movement – saw a real opportunity to be seized as the financial crisis unfolded. For decades, we’ve been campaigning to make the global financial architecture fair and sustainable. Now that it’s collapsed, that message is more relevant than ever – but there’s a danger that the G20 governments will not make real changes. We wanted to bring a coalition together to make clear what needed to be done.

“The interest has been quite amazing. What’s really significant about this is the marrying up of unions, environmental groups, trade justice groups, religious groups – all of them uniting for the first time around a common manifesto which we are demanding the G20 adopts.”

It is this impressive size and breadth that makes the coalition’s organisers hopeful of a large turnout. And Put People First is already making an impact. Its manifesto and accompanying policy paper call for a “historic break with the policies of the past”, and include demands for an end to tax havens, radical reform of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, new rules stipulating transparency for multinational corporations and financial institutions, a “Green New Deal” recovery package based on huge investment in renewable techno­logies, and the control of cross-border capital flows. It seems the British government is listening – but only up to a point.

“We have held a series of meetings with the government at various levels,” says Julian Oram, head of policy at the World Development Movement and another key player in the coalition. “To be fair, they have been good at meeting us and listening to what we have to say. And we agree on some things, like ending tax havens. My impression is that they want to be seen to be in agreement with us – to adopt our language and look like they’re working with us – but on most of our demands, they either don’t get it or blame China or India for their inability to change things. We need to be very clear with them and the public what we want. We are not going to be co-opted.”

After the G20, Put People First will turn its attention to the UN’s crisis summit on the global economy, planned for June, and then the Copenhagen conference on climate change in December. But whatever the coalition’s long-term impact, it is not the only voice that will be raised in the week ahead.

One of the loudest will be the fourth gathering of Camp for Climate Action on 1 April. After the movement’s previous protests at the Drax and Kingsnorth power stations and Heathrow Airport, the intention is for this year’s camp to take place in the belly of the beast: the City. Twenty-four hours of direct action, workshops and debates will climax in the attempted occupation of the European Climate Exchange, the pan-

European centre for the trading of carbon emissions permits. “Carbon markets don’t work,” says Mel Evans of the Camp for Climate Action. “On the contrary – this is the government handing power over the climate to the corporations and the traders who got us into this mess. We want to block that. Carbon trading will be the next sub-prime. What we want people to understand is that the climate crisis and the economic crisis are intimately connected. It’s the same unsustainable growth economy that causes both.” Exactly what will happen on the day is a closely guarded secret, but the camp is likely to be a big affair, and the G20 will find it hard to ignore.

A wave of street protests, direct action and other activities is also planned by a loose alliance of political groups, activists, anarchists, artists, students and others for 1 April, or “Financial Fools Day”. The Daily Mail is already sounding gleeful about the potential confron­tation (“Anarchists plan City riot!” ran a recent headline). At mid-morning on 1 April, marchers representing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will begin moving from four London railway stations, heading for the Bank of England. Each group will be commanding its forces against 1) climate chaos, 2) war, 3) job, pension and savings losses and 4) home repossessions.

So, London might be a bad place to try to move around in the coming week. But all the colour and the chaos, marches and manifestos should not obscure the bigger picture, which puts the week’s events in proper historical context. Ten years ago, in the US city of Seattle, governments gathered for a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation. They had come to set the rules by which the global economy would operate. In retrospect, it was probably the high-water mark of globalisation: after the fall of communism and before 11 September 2001.

As the meeting began, the delegates were unexpectedly confronted by a mass of people who saw things very differently. More than 50,000 people took to the streets to rebel against the WTO’s version of history. Environmentalists highlighted the global economy’s disastrous impact on the natural world; campaigners for justice railed against the exploitation of the poor; unions, religious groups, anarchists and thousands of unaligned individuals took to the streets to shut down the WTO. The police responded violently with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. A movement was born, and during the next three years it stormed every global summit. The inequality and unsustainability of the global economy were exposed to public view. But the 11 September 2001 attacks and Iraq War caused the movement to dissipate, and its surface energy disappeared.

Yet, a decade on, the wheel has come full circle. Many of the claims that the protesters made back in Seattle have been proved right, and what is happening now can be seen as the next phase of the same movement. But this time those who claimed that markets should not be left to their own devices, that global inequality was something to be ashamed of, find their arguments echoed, however insincerely, by prime ministers, presidents and CEOs.

The movement seems to have learned from its mistakes. It knows it can never repeat the vast street protests that culminated in widespread police brutality, most shamefully the death of an activist in Genoa in 2001: a newly empowered and determined state apparatus would not allow it, for one thing. But it knows also that getting too close to power, as the Make Poverty History coalition did, can be fatal. The trick is to create a space in which everyone from artists and anarchists to NGO policy wonks can play a part, while making hard, detailed demands of power. And not stopping until those demands are met.

It remains to be seen where this movement goes next, or the scale and the effectiveness of the week’s events. But the world leaders inside the summit venue would be well advised to listen to what it has to say. After all, it’s not as if they have any better ideas of their own.

Paul Kingsnorth’s latest book is “Real England” (Portobello Books, £14.99). For details log on to: www.paulkingsnorth.net

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

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

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power