G8 protest: how far should you go?

From the Sixties going back to the suffragettes and the Levellers, Britain has a long history of reb

Several entangled traditions of political protest will be celebrated in Scotland in the first week of July, when representatives of the world's "Great Powers", the so-called G8, attend their annual gathering - to ensure that the world continues to be run for their benefit. As is usual on such occasions, many groups of demonstrators will be present, some bearing peaceful witness, others seeking to push out the boundaries of permitted protest.

On the revolutionary left are the anarchistic activists who have made these meetings a priority ever since their notable explosion on to the international scene at Seattle in 1999 and at Genoa in 2001. They will assemble at Gleneagles on Wednesday 6 July (the first day of the G8 conference) under the banner "Another World is Possible" - the anti-capitalist slogan of the World Social Forum of Porto Alegre; the McDonald's-trashing followers of Jose Bove, the French agrarian activist; and the luminaries of the Socialist Workers Party. Judging by past experience, there could be more than a clash of ideas. These are the new generation of protesters, who attract the most police attention. They do not necessarily court violence, but they belong to a tradition of direct action, of taking a protest beyond the limits of the law.

On the reformist right are those who march or demonstrate against injustice within the law. Theirs is an ancient, semi-religious dissenting tradition, channelled these days through churches and non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. They lobby for debt relief and increased aid for development, often work with governments, and generally receive a favourable reception from politicians and in the media. They will demonstrate in Edinburgh a few days earlier, on Saturday 2 July, under the optimistic and non-controversial slogan "Make poverty history".

So which of these protests does history suggest will be the most effective? I have taken part in similar demonstrations for as long as I can remember, and I recognise both the muddle and the underlying patterns of protest. They have bubbled away beneath the surface at least since the 19th century. I have been on demos, legal and illegal, and I would argue that both have a role to play. In the 1960s, I used to go on CND's Aldermaston marches, which were largely peaceful, but I also supported the actions of the more radical Committee of 100, who, especially against US nuclear airbases, set out to break the law. The atmosphere at the demos against the American war in Vietnam was far more militant than the aura of Quaker peace that prevailed on the road from Aldermaston, and I experienced a frisson last March when the anti-war demo in London was allowed to take a detour around Grosvenor Square, probably for the first time since the riots of the 1960s.

Extra-parliamentary political action has long been one of the channels through which ideas and issues are brought strikingly to the attention of the public (think of the Chartists, the Fenians beloved of Marx, the suffragettes, and the Levellers and Diggers of the 17th century), and the debate about the political impact of illegal action and peaceful resistance has always been the same. Can Gandhi's methods work, or does a more vigorous challenge to the state help speed up the process? And does a combination of the two negate the impact of the more peaceful protests?

We were internationalists in the 1960s, but influenced more by comparable movements in the United States, notably those promoting civil rights, than by those in Europe. Today's activists tend to be in contact with anti-capitalist groups in Europe. Everyone is conscious, too, of the various exhibitions of "people power" that have emerged since the collapse of communism, giving additional legitimacy to the strategy of mass street protest.

The Sixties demonstrations became a way of life for millions of people. The unexpected student fireworks of 1968 led eventually to the creation of an international culture that had influence far beyond the narrow concerns of parliamentary politics, and spread eventually to the farthest corners of the world. In May alone, one and a half million Christian evangelicals assembled in the streets of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Such scenes, previously unimaginable in a predominantly Catholic country, have much to do with the global cultural break-up of the 1960s.

Forty years ago, protest and the culture of taking politics to the streets was more contested than it is today, though police repression can be just as fierce. Protest was tolerated in the 1960s, just about, but the British generally were unprepared for the cultural tsunami of alternative politics, rock music and mind-bending drugs that unrolled during the course of the decade. Protests, demonstrations, sit-downs, teach-ins, folk music, rock concerts, motor scooters and cannabis were all lumped together with long hair and duffel coats in the minds of Britain's conservative establishment. The culture of protest met with widespread disapproval and sometimes with outright hostility.

Today it is taken for granted. It is the background to everyone's life, the fodder regularly served up by the media. Middle-class parents expect their teenage children to go to Reading and Glastonbury, and would be disappointed if they didn't. Many will happily wave them off to Scotland in July to do their bit to make poverty history. Everyone now acknowledges the citizen's historic right to take part in political protest. And yet there is little support for anarchist disregard for the law.

The unusually large anti-war demo of February 2003 in London, where more than a million people marched to protest against the impending invasion of Iraq, is taken as a benchmark of what can and should be done. But just how effective was it? It brought out an extraordinary cross-section of Middle England, many of whom were not from the conventional demonstrating classes. Indeed, the great banners of the trade-union movement were hard to spot among them. It revealed the extent of the disquiet about the Iraq war in the establishment and in the media. It certainly produced a change of heart among a significant number of Labour MPs, and may well have contributed to the party's loss of seats at this year's election. Yet it did not deliver the goods. The MPs voted for war, and the invasion of Iraq went ahead.

The permanent peace demonstration of Brian Haw, who has been camping out with his banners in Parliament Square for the past four years, may have had just as much, or as little, impact. Years ago I tested the limits of legality in a similar way. I was arrested in Trafalgar Square for making a speech about nuclear weapons without the permission of the home secretary. The arrest was made under the terms of some 14th-century legislation, then still on the statute book, which forbade public debate or assembly within a mile of Westminster while parliament was sitting. For this small protest, I was fined £10. I refused to pay, but my father paid it when the bailiffs came to the door. I was in good company, given that earlier I had joined the illegal sit-down with Bertrand Russell and the Committee of 100 outside the Ministry of Defence, on the pavement looking over St James's Park.

Brian Haw's long-drawn-out protest would not have been possible in those days, and doubtless it will be forbidden again soon. Haw defeated an injunction taken out against him by Westminster City Council, and memorably declared that "peace is more popular than parliament". It will be more difficult to get round David Blunkett's legacy, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, known as Soca, legislation for which was finally passed in April. Soca was originally designed to deal with "serious" and "organised" crime, but the Home Office lawyers took the opportunity to tidy up and reinstate some ancient public order legislation at the same time. The environs of Parliament Square in which permission to demonstrate has to be sought have now been reduced to a one-kilometre radius, but in other respects the situation is much as it was in the 14th century - that is, strictly controlled.

Protest has registered peaks and troughs over the past half-century, as causes come and go. The campaigns against nuclear weapons and war, the alarm aroused over the deteriorating environment and the perennial problem of the Fenians have never quite disappeared, but other issues have sprung up at intervals, sometimes with surprising force. The demonstration against the poll tax in March 1990 turned into the worst riot in the capital since the 19th century. It produced the usual condemnations, notably from the then shadow home secretary, Roy Hattersley, who called for "exemplary sentences" for those "convicted of committing criminal acts" - the authentic voice of libertarian Labour.

Yet just how effective were the riots? They certainly drew attention to discontent about the poll tax, and perhaps they speeded its demise. Some argue that they hastened the departure of Margaret Thatcher at the end of that year, yet her exit may more justly be laid at the doors of the Tory ministers who had decided for other reasons that her time was up. The riots left no wider political legacy. Who now remembers the group that called itself Class War?

Ten years later, the May Day protest in Parliament Square in 2000 hinted at the start of a new phenomenon. Anti-capitalist demonstrators mobilised privately and on the internet, and organised a delightful programme of "guerrilla gardening" in the square. They moved on to destroy the nearest McDonald's, and the event was given notoriety by the man who gave the statue of Winston Churchill a green Mohican hairdo. To some, it seemed an amusing, rather British occasion, but to new Labour it evoked memories of Seattle in 1999, and the need to combat this new form of activism. When the demonstrators assembled at Oxford Circus on May Day the following year, the police were ready. The entire area was turned into an exclusion zone, and thousands of people were detained there for many hours. May Day protests on that scale and likely to attract the same degree of repression have now been abandoned, although the heirs and successors of the protesters will certainly turn up at Gleneagles in July. Reclaim the Streets, the original May Day protest group, has disappeared into history, along with Class War.

Not all the demonstrators of recent years have come from the left. The Daily Telegraph used to bracket "pinkoes" with "pacifists" in a single phrase, yet pacifists, as anyone who has had dealings with them well knows, can be both conservative and Conservative. Iain Duncan Smith gave the Tory party's imprimatur to street protest in September 2002 when he joined the marchers of the Countryside Alliance, while many people argue that the violent attacks on individual scientists unleashed by animal rights activists come from the right rather than the left. Here again, violent protest has proved counter-productive, because important clauses in the Soca legislation were directed against the activists (as well as to protect the bankers, investors and shareholders who do business with animal research facilities).

The post-election political atmosphere does not suggest that the protests in Scotland will produce a seismic shock of the kind caused by the poll-tax riots or those at Seattle. There will be people with wire-cutters who will seek to penetrate Gleneagles, with its grassy lawns, to protest against the war criminals gathered within, but most people who obey Bob Geldof's call to arms on behalf of poverty and climate change will enjoy a peaceful break. Demonstrators of every stripe take part in public protest because they believe it to be the right thing to do, not because they expect any immediate result. When the smoke clears from the battle of Gleneagles, the leaders of the G8 mafia will continue their work unaffected. Their helicopters will whisk them away, and their spokesmen will stay behind to issue bland communiques drafted long before. The world will not be turned upside down.

Yet the protesters themselves will be changed. However the demonstrations end up, with a peaceful sit-down in the sunshine or violent clashes in the heather, old stagers and youthful neophytes will continue to find a sense of purpose in their actions. Utopias are not much in fashion any more, but that does not stop people looking for them. The meeting of like-minded people to discuss, argue - and demonstrate - together is one of the ways in which our exhausted political culture is endlessly refreshed.

Crossing that line: some views

Shami Chakrabarti (Liberty) Departure from the law is a serious step and the first aim must be to protest within the legitimate democratic process. However, as individual moral beings, we cannot blindly follow laws, particularly when the laws themselves are used to close off legal, democratic avenues of protest.

Tony Benn If you engage in civil disobedience, you must be willing to pay the penalty, but history will be the real judge. Non-violent demonstration can be extremely powerful. Gandhi was continually imprisoned and had an enormous influence. Violent disobedience is different: it does not aim at education, but is an attempt to seize power.

Roger Scruton The G8 summit is one of those depressing meetings of people with more power than they deserve for the purpose of deciding more things than they understand. How to stop such things happening? I don't know.

Suzanne Moore The most important issue is that people feel, in that visceral sense, their own power. Learning the value of collective defiance is worth years of schooling, which is why I agree with Bob Geldof that schoolkids should truant for a day.

Nick Cohen Moral protesters never resort to violence and they always accept responsibility for their actions. Martin Luther King believed in civil disobedience; people who torch McDonald's just get a kick out of destruction.

Ted Honderich Mass civil disobedience to the fullest extent conceivable is the best thing that could happen - everything that can be thought of, and much that hasn't been thought of, that is a rational means to the end. That end is getting people out of bad lives.

John Hilary (War on Want) The fight to make poverty history will gain immensely from a peaceful demo that is noisy, colourful and massive. Bring it on!

Jon Snow I don't believe there will be any civil disobedience - I imagine it will be more of a fiesta. I will be in Africa at the time, seeing what things look like from their perspective.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, G8 protest: how far should you go?