I’ve attended two local protests in the last few days. The second, on Saturday 31st August, was one of many all around the country. I signed a petition, too, within hours of it being posted on the Parliament website, when it stood at around 100,000 signatures. It passed a million within 24 hours. I marched in the capital with a million fellow citizens. None of this appears to have much troubled the media, and it hasn’t given the government a moment’s pause for thought. The question is why such protests have had so little effect?
Try thinking of what might have happened if the street protests, the marches, the petitions, had been the work of people who voted to leave the European Union?
A Question Time audience of a million people outside the gates of Downing Street. Spontaneous protests of radio phone-in stalwarts in towns and cities across the UK? 2,500 Leavers turning up on the Promenade in a seaside town of perhaps 12,000 inhabitants? Can you imagine the press reaction to that?
There would have been panic in Westminster, Cobra meetings, alarm across the land.
Two obvious questions arise from this. One is the question of why the Leavers have never matched our protests in frequency and scale?
They have surely tried. Soon after the 2016 vote Arron Banks was said to have offered to pay for free buses and free beer for pro-Brexit marchers, but even such inducements couldn’t attract the numbers that would matter. (Remainers mostly pay their own way.) The recent attempt, fronted by Nigel Farage, at reenacting the Jarrow March attracted fewer people than a regular Sunday afternoon with any local Ramblers group. The Brexit Party Ltd has regular rallies attracting up to a few thousand attendees paying a fiver to gawp at Farage and his band, but press coverage has suggested than some attendees are groupies who travel to each event. In any case, the numbers amount to rather less than the average footfall in our public libraries. Most Brexit voters, one must conclude, aren’t especially committed.
The other question is why do our protests seem to have so little political impact?
The answer to that, surely, is that power does not fear us. They fear the carefully selected Question Time audience, but they don’t see us as any kind of threat.
My guess is that they don’t fear us, because they know us. We have taught them, or their children. We tend them when they are sick. They’ve worked alongside us in the jobs they did before going into politics (I was struck, at last Saturday’s protest in the rain, by the number of umbrellas bearing the names of prominent law firms). They assume that they can take us for granted, because we have too much to lose to start tearing up paving stones, and hijacking buses to make barricades. None of us has ever assassinated a Member of Parliament.
It’s a basic psychological response to others. If they seem like ‘us’, we relax, we don’t fear them as dangerous strangers. I’ve often thought that politicians on the election campaign trail look like people in a state of perpetual terror. They really are frightened of voters. Just not us.
So, sadly, we need to make them fear us. We need to invent forms of protest which cause them alarm. Like the Extinction Rebellion protesters, who in reality are probably also often the educated, urban middle class, we need to find forms of action that surprise and discomfort the powerful.
In short, we need to frighten the Bejesus out of them!