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A dark reflection of a bygone age

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This year’s Extinction Rebellion protests have been met with a very different response to that in years gone by.  Instead of the carnival atmosphere, with police officers dressed in shirtsleeves and soft caps, this year’s protestors were met by a more traditional form of policing which quickly kettled them before bundling them away.  Nor did it end there.  Following the group’s blockade of Murdoch printing presses, government and opposition ministers condemned the group as enemies of a free press.  And then – in order to bend the law to prevent further demonstrations – Home Secretary Priti Patel labelled the group an organised criminal gang.

This turn of events has no doubt surprised as many people who didn’t attend the Extinction Rebellion protests as those who did.  The threatened use of powers supposedly enacted to combat Covid-19 to ban further peaceful protest takes authoritarianism to new depths.  After all, before MPs went off to social distance themselves in April, they had explicitly excluded political protest from the list of gatherings which could be banned.

What we are witnessing is nothing new though.  It is just that twenty two years of neoliberal government lulled everyone to sleep.  The neoliberal settlement which was cemented into place by the Blair governments involved a compromise in which left and right settled for half of their stated aims.  The political right secured its version of free market economic policy at the expense of its social conservatism.  On the other side, New Labour adopted free market economics while extending social liberalism.  Within this consensus, a plethora of social liberal causes were approved of and – so long as they remained peaceful – were even encouraged by government.  Various LGBTQ causes, women’s rights, BAME issues and, yes, environmental concerns, were all treated favourably within the new consensus.  Only class politics was deemed to be beyond the pale.

The weakened Tory version of neoliberalism was not about to challenge the advance of social liberalism following their return to government – in coalition with the Liberal Democrats – in 2010.  The 2015 general election was the first for 23 years to produce a Tory majority government.  A year later it unleashed Brexit, causing its architect to resign and hand over to the hapless Theresa May.  Within a year, May had blown the Tory majority in the unnecessary and appallingly run 2017 general election.  The following two and a half years were so tied up with Brexit that nobody was about to challenge the myriad protests which seemed to appear every weekend.

The point is that many of today’s protestors weren’t even born the last time we were ruled by a Tory government with an unassailable majority.  Only the over-50s will have been adults during the Thatcher years.  But among those who do remember those governments will be many who remember police brutality being taken to entirely new depths.  The iconic image of mounted police indiscriminately thwacking the skulls of unarmed miners in the summer of 1984 came to represent the Tory approach to policing:

From the St. Paul’s riots in April 1980 – largely a consequence of Thatcher’s heavy-handed use of sus laws – to police provocation of the Poll Tax demonstrators in London in March 1990, the Thatcher years were marred by incident after incident of violent policing which went far beyond the accepted norms of the post-war years.  The comfortable image of the suburban “bobby on the beat” was replaced by the paramilitary armed with riot shield and baton.

Compared to 1980s-style Tory policing, Extinction Rebellion has got off lightly so far.  Whether this continues now that they are being re-categorised to bring them within emergency laws banning demonstrations during the pandemic, is another matter.  Media opponents of Extinction Rebellion have portrayed the group as comprising largely affluent metropolitan liberals – the kind of people who voted to remain in the EU in 2016, and who voted for Corbyn in 2017 and 2019; and thus a section of the population the Tories can afford to ignore.

Nor should we draw any comfort from Johnson’s government’s bungling of the pandemic crisis.  It is often forgotten too, that Thatcher’s 1979 to 1983 government was extremely unpopular.  In the early years her economic policies resulted in millions of jobs being destroyed as whole industries disappeared.  As William Borders at the New York Times reported at the time:

“Unemployment stands at nearly 9 percent and is increasing so relentlessly that The Sunday Times began publishing a weekly listing, headlined ‘Jobless Britain,’ of factories that have closed and the number of jobs were lost at each. The number unemployed, now well over two million, increased by 900,000 in 1980.

“Industrial production has been declining more sharply than at any time in years, and the rate of inflation is 15 percent. That is lower than the peak reached last summer but still well above the 10 percent inflation when Mrs. Thatcher took office 21 months ago…

“Even by some within her own party, the Prime Minister is increasingly being urged to relent a bit on her strict austerity program and to increase -instead of cut – public spending, step up help for ailing industry and rely less on firm monetarism as the ultimate weapon against inflation.

“To Mrs. Thatcher’s great irritation, even former Prime Minister Edward Heath, also a Conservative, has described her economic policy as ‘catastrophic’…

“[Thatcher’s supporters] like to point to the one bright spot on the economic horizon: the steadily swelling flow of oil from the North Sea. With current production of 1.7 million barrels a day, exceeding such giants as Indonesia and Kuwait, Britain has become self-sufficient in oil, saving this country billions of dollars in import bills…

“But even that good news has a dark side. The oil production has been a major factor in the appreciation of sterling, which is now trading at a level 50 percent higher than in 1976. Though good for some people in Britain, the strong pound has had a devastating effect on exporters, making their goods more expensive abroad…

“Sir Michael Edwardes, the chairman of BL Ltd., the automobile company that used to be called British Leyland, expressed a widely held view among industrialists when he declared in exasperation that, if the Government could not figure out a way to keep the oil from hurting big business, it should ‘leave the bloody stuff in the ground’.”

The previous October had seen prominent Tories along with their supporters in the media pressuring Thatcher to change course.  Their efforts drew the famous response:

“To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U’ turn, I have only one thing to say. ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning’.”

Although the 1983 election produced a Labour manifesto which entered the history books as “the longest suicide note in history,” as late as the spring of 1982 Thatcher was behind in the polls.  What saved her was a combination of her unlikely success – having cut Britain’s naval strength the previous year – in retaking the Falkland Islands, together with one of those all too dangerous moments of grandeur experienced by Britain’s so-called centrists.  The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was similar to the Change UK group which sealed the fate of Britain’s remainers last December.  A combination of disenchanted Labour right wingers and Tory wets, the SDP won considerable support from a British population fed up with Thatcher’s economic policies, but unwilling to support a left-leaning but divided Labour Party.  Ignoring the structural bias in a first-past-the-post electoral system, the SDP deluded themselves that they could win.  In the end, despite almost matching Labour’s share of the vote (25.4% v 27.6%) the SDP-Liberal alliance picked up just 23 seats compared to Labour’s 209.  As in 2019 though, by splitting the anti-Tory vote, the SDP-Liberal alliance handed Thatcher a massive majority which she used to ruthlessly crush the remaining opposition to her neoliberal revolution.

Thatcher went on to win another landslide in 1987.  Although by then, internal divisions over Europe together with defeat over the Poll Tax caused Thatcher to resign in November 1990.  Even then, the Tories under John Major went on to win another – much closer – majority in 1992.  It was to be another five years before Blair won his first landslide majority; finally bringing an end to 18 years of Tory government in May 1997.

Whether Boris Johnson will be quite so enduring we will have to wait and see.  Certainly a second Falklands War is out of the question now that Britain’s military strength is a mere shadow of even its 1982 establishment.  With two leaky aircraft carriers, destroyers that cannot operate in tropical temperatures and Boaty McBoatface all that remains to throw against the foreign invader, Britain is not going to be winning any more wars.  A divided opposition is a different matter.  With Keir Starmer rapidly pulling Labour back to the discredited Blairite right, it is doubtful that the Labour Party can hold onto the mass membership which joined during the Miliband-Corbyn years.  It is notable that despite the Johnson government’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, his party is still ahead in the polls.

For protest movements which have become accustomed to the relaxed, carnival atmosphere of demonstrations under relatively weak neoliberal governments, the treatment of Extinction Rebellion should be a wake-up call.  With a majority of 80 and with the opposition Labour Party unlikely to be able to form a government without the support of the Scottish National Party in future, police under Johnson can afford to break heads once more.  This, in turn, means that opponents need to relearn the lesson from the 1980s – that winning requires the hard work of building, and sustaining, large popular (dare I say populist) alliances for change.

As you made it to the end…

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