It is interesting, as an American, whose country has always been a far cry from a welfare state, to watch the dismantling of Britain’s. The combined effects of the proposed NHS reform, social benefits reform, tuition increases, and budget cuts represent a major shift in citizens’ relationship to the state. Two articles in today’s guardian – one about the eviction of the Occupy camp at St. Paul’s and the other about labour and the Olympics – prompted me to reflect on the ways people are struggling with these changes, and the distinctly British way of reacting to people who try to oppose the status quo.
I visited the Occupy camp at St. Paul’s in the early days, just as the Cathedral had decided to close, trying to publicly shame the occupiers and turn public opinion against them. The occupiers had invested a great deal of time and energy managing relations with Church leadership – making sure access to the Cathedral was not impeded by Occupy activities, that the camp was not unsightly, and a great number of other things. But on this Sunday afternoon, the church was closed, and angry patrons came to speak at the General Assembly – lambasting the occupiers for being “selfish” and “forcing” St. Paul’s to close. One tearful elderly woman shared about how during the War she had come to the area and seen every building in the neighborhood in flames except St. Paul’s, and she took it as a sign from God. She could not accept that the Church could make it through that ordeal but be forced to close by a group of protesters. To me this makes the heavy-handed actions by the Church that much more shameful (and Giles Fraser resigned as canon chancellor over this), but many didn’t see it that way. Fraser has an excellent piece in today’s Guardian eulogizing the OccupyLSX as it was finally evicted on Tuesday.
I was proud of the way occupiers took on the undemocratic City, managing a sound legal struggle at the same time as a political struggle for public opinion – trying to get people on board with the radical notions that everyday human beings ought to be at the center of economics and that they should be protected (by government and public institutions) from predatory forms of capitalism. The forces of undemocracy have won in that they were finally able to forcibly remove the occupiers from the grounds around St. Paul’s. It’s a credit to the occupiers that this happened peacefully. But as far as the struggle for a humane economics, the verdict is still out.
Another piece in the Guardian is related to the issue of resisting the dismantling of British society. Len McCluskey, leader of the public sector union, Unite, speculated that the union will consider organized action during the Olympic games. The reaction is the same: how can they be so selfish? Their livelihoods are under attack, their society is under attack, their rights to organize are under attack (there is new talk of placing legal restrictions on the right to strike). Why can’t they just get in line and suffer silently while Britain puts on its best face for the world?
Ed Milliband, leader of the Labour party (the Labour party!) found this “unacceptable and wrong”, and his deputy, Harriet Harman, is quoted in the Guardian as saying,
“I’ve already actually spoken to Len McCluskey this morning and said that both Ed Miliband and I think he’s wrong and we think that he shouldn’t even be floating the prospect. “We all need to be rallying behind the Olympics – it’s going to be an important opportunity for Britain and it’s going to affect our jobs, our economic growth in the future and the prosperity of this country. We want to make a great success of it, and I’ve already had the opportunity of saying to Len that I think that he was wrong even to raise this.”
It’s incredible to me that Labour does not even support organized labour, and it can say that the Olympics are more important for jobs, economic growth, and future prosperity than preventing the destruction of the institutions specifically designed to protect jobs, economic growth and prosperity. It’s more important that organized labour not make a fuss.
Of course the establishment will do whatever it takes to oppose resistance to its consolidation of wealth and power. The politics of fear and uncertainty have allowed this government to push through austerity measures and fundamentally diminish the ability of the state to care for everyday British people. The argument that high levels of debt make it impossible to support well-being programs is simply untenable. Interest rates for British borrowing are around the lowest in more than a century. The British welfare state was built in the aftermath of the Second World War, when national debt was astronomically greater than now. Protecting social programs that boost employment and make life more livable are absolutely necessary for long-term economic growth. It is impossible to cut one’s way to growth.
Everyday British citizens should never buy into such lies. If the government wants to show the world a house in order, it should get its house in order. It is not the responsibility of people in such a vulnerable position, who are likely to lose a great deal in the course of these structural changes, to put on a good face. Instead, it is wholly appropriate for them to struggle for their rights and struggle to save their institutions for collective well-being. Citizens do not need to rally behind the Olympics, but rally behind civic organizations and leaders working to ensure social protection, access to health care, access to education, and the right to organize. The occupiers might be gone from St. Paul’s, but let’s hope the spirit of Occupy has not gone far.
Eric Kasper is a PhD candidate within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.