Monday, 26 February 2007

A Leisurely Constitutional - Political Action With Geriatrics

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Warning: this blogpost is subjective, and opinionated, with the author's prejudices in full display

Saturday morning and early afternoon found me here, joining in the festivities of the latest in the long series of Stop The War/CND organised demonstrations. This may surprise those of you who have read this website regularly (my opinions jump across the left-right divide often), but at the present time I feel sufficiently strongly to take to the streets on both the main issues the demonstration was organised to oppose: replacing Trident and drawing the troops back from Iraq.

I'm not writing this to discuss my opinions on the issues (I'll get back to these later on), my primary interest here was the sociology of the demonstration. Because I've got to make an embarrassing admission here, I couldn't face attending this demonstration for more than an hour, after walking from Hyde Park for 2/3rds of the distance to Trafalgar Square,I fled to a pub in Soho.

I was stunned by the demography of the marchers. Take a closer look at that photograph at the top... The majority of the people who felt compelled to take to the streets to demonstrate on this issue were old. If I were to make a statistically inaccurate and subjective assessment of the people I was on the march with, I would say 3/5ths of the attendees were 55+, 1/5th was the young hippy contingent, and 1/5th was the diverse groupings of the left (including, of course, the political Muslim constituency). This shocked me, as a semi-political blogger I've digested all of the fluff written over the past couple of years about the new commentariat. This rather feeble way of describing those of us willed to write and link to each other does signify a group that unquestionably has clout, a notable example could be seen last week when Tony Blair was forced to publicly comment on the proposed road pricing scheme. Anyone who reads Comment Is Free on The Guardian's website sees this massive body of predominantly young, politically active, intellectuals who will spill forth bile and opinions on any topic that happens to capture their interest. The commentariat, in whatever form it actually exists, has something approaching tangible political power. Having read over the last few US elections of the king maker ability wielded by the key American political blogs and the interaction between the Howard Deans of this world and blogdom I had assumed that direct political action might show the stamp of these people... They are the active force in amateur politics after all. Since this Saturday was the most significant political march this country has seen in over a year, and these people were nowhere to be seen, I must now assume that I was being naive.

Instead I found myself amongst a crowd of people who could feasibly have attended every demonstration on this topic since Bertrand Russell was arrested in 1961. I suspect part of this may be the fact that the demonstration was aimed at a confusion of targets (not good PR at all to mix The War and Nukes, they have little in common beyond their opponents) and that one of these targets was Nuclear Weapons. To the Baby Boomer generation this issue is visceral, with memories of a time when nukes took on implications of life and death for everyone they cared about. To me, while I still care about this, it is a much more nuanced issue. I am as yet open to argument as to whether Britain needs an independent nuclear deterrent. But I am quite, quite certain that to pay the American Military Industrial Complex, so the money and it's related research benefits are lost to the European economy completely, is fiscal insanity and poor defence strategy when America's role in the world is so ambiguous. Maybe it is understandable that such a political situation has difficulty in bringing people to the streets.

I talk to friends in continental Europe, where the tradition of public demonstration is much stronger, and they speak of the sedate nature of British demos. From personal experience I was present for a much smaller Anti-War march in January in Athens (Greece is not directly involved in the war effort) and there was an edge of violence and aggression to the demonstrators that was completely lacking in Saturday's grey dawn. Much as I respect what the baby boomers are doing when they come to stand up for their politics, it must be remembered that the last time a government was felled by direct action (the poll tax riots had a dramatic impact on Margaret Thatcher's political career) there was a strong flavour of anger in the body politic - a feature lacking in a sedate march with walking sticks, easily written off on page 4 of the broadsheets. Direct political action has a real role to play in the politics of resistance, and we need to be able to stand up to our political demons. But unless the bodies organising these marches learn to mature away from their Vietnam-era leftist prejudices, then these marches are a statistical group the Establishment know they can get away with ignoring.

The Baby Boomer left have failed to convince the younger generations of their political beliefs, and while they remain highly active, and must be respected for their dedication, their actions to me appear to marginalise the issues they care about. If this audience is all that a demonstration against Trident can pull (and I am certain many, many more people care about Trident than those attending this demonstration) then we (if there really is a we) - the Commentariat - need to perform a hostile takeover of CND.

And so I hang my head, and say I will not be attending another march when it is dominated by this constituency - these people's politics are too far from mine.

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