The backlash is on. With counter-propaganda pouring in about today’s demonstration, I”m crouched on the bed cramming water bottles, wet wipes and a spare hoodie into my backpack, testing my riot boots, getting ready to march.
From senior police officers to stuffed-shirt commentators to single mothers on the protest coach from Aberdeen to the anarchists currently putting the finishing touches to their trojan horse in Kennington, pretty much everyone seems to be convinced there’s going to be an epic kick-off. There is trepidation and excitement on both sides. Many tens of thousands of protesters and police would rather we all went on a nice civilised saunter to Hyde Park to hear some speeches, but many others are getting their armour ready, digging out their face masks, shining up their riot shields for a rumble in London.
Whatever happens, the eyes of the world will be on this city today. The ancient streets are going to shake with the stoppered rage of the public, as they have done so many times before. Seven hundred years ago, Wat Tyler led thousands in a march against feudalism and entitlement, against wealth and power being concentrated in the hands of a few rich families who owned everything and were answerable to noone. Seven hundred years later, we’re still marching, because it’s still happening.
The business elites have been allowed to vampirise the future, and instead of being made to pay for their mistakes, they brazenly demand more tribute. Our barely-elected representatives cheerfully force us into lines to pay the tithe, breaking the heads of children in parliament square if they refuse to comply. As we get ready to march, a government with little mandate is turning our country into a smooth-running cartel to serve the petulant demands of global finance. In his budget speech, George Osborne declared that the world should take note of the fact that “Britain is open for business”. Having previously announced the decimation of welfare, education, culture, healthcare, public services and the arts, the City of London-financed Conservative party has ensured that Britain is open for little else, and is swinging shut in the faces of the unprofitable.
Present political expediency offers no way out, and a thousand reasons to march. This week, many people have told me their reasons. Elderly, disabled and mentally ill people and carers who cannot do without the welfare benefits that the government is about to sell off to finance a cut to corporation tax. School pupils who want to be able to afford university without taking on a lifetime’s worth of debt; students at glasgow and UCL universities who have been assaulted by police and victimised by management for daring to speak out against that encroaching debt, and for standing in solidarity with striking staff and lecturers. Career anarchists and concerned liberals on their first protest in three decades. Trades unionists unfurling the banners and getting ready to demand the sort of basic human dignity that became unfashionable in the mid-1980s. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, people already too sick or exhausted or impoverished to come to the protests in person, and the strangers who offered to show solidarity by marching in their stead. A man with terminal cancer and five weeks to live, whose incapacity benefits had been delayed by the latest welfare reforms. A woman set to lose her NHS job who can no longer afford childcare.
So many reasons, so many voices, so much anger that one simple political alternative could never be broad enough to satisfy them all. So many voices, and if I had twenty years I could sit and write down every one and make them loud enough for all London to hear. At times like this, words on a screen aren’t enough. At times like this, we have to go to the streets.
There will be enough time for stories today; stories of indignation and suffering and small triumphs bitten back from the jaws of spiteful austerity. But right now I’m going to do something I do very seldom. I’m going to tell you why I’m marching.
I’m marching because I’m afraid. I’m afraid that everything precious about modernity might be destroyed by a cabal of financiers and aristocrats who own everything and answer to noone. I’m afraid that the civil humanity of welfare, healthcare, public education, art, science and protection for minorities and the dispossessed that so many hundreds of people fought and died for over three long centuries of struggle, I’m afraid that that might all be taken away because some millionaires have decided they’re not being paid enough.
I’m afraid that the governments of Europe and America and the Middle East will continue to listen to those millionaires and only to those millionaires whilst their people cry out for relief. I’m afraid that they’ll carry on taking the best ideals of human decency and twisting them into tortured pastiches of principle. I’m afraid that in thirty years the word “freedom” will mean only only military imperialism, the word “democracy” only the bloody enforcement of western corporate hegemony, the word “liberty” only the blithe self-interest of the few, the word “fairness” only the moral imposition of austerity by governments soaked in oil-money, in blood-money, in money summarily appropriated from struggling taxpayers to fund the debts of the rich.
I’m afraid that if we don’t turn and fight for those principles, they will cease to exist, at least in the way we understand them.
This is not about party politics. I care not one jot about whether the current Conservative-led administration is openly continuing New Labour’s project of decimating welfare, privatising education, holding down wages and sucking the shrivelled morals of the City. I’m just afraid that the bastards are going to get away with it. I’m marching today with hundreds of thousands of others because I don’t want to be afraid anymore. This is just the beginning.