Last night the protesters occupying the area outside St Paul’s Cathedral were unceremoniously removed by a squad of bailiffs and police. As I tuned into BBC Radio Five Live’s phone-in there were queues of people ringing in to say good riddance and to condemn them for making such a mess of one of London’s most famous tourist attractions. Despite the best efforts of one representative of the Occupy movement there was little or no discussion of why they were there in the first place. Instead there was just a string of tired complaints about a rabble of misguided, workshy, rent-a-mob malcontents who had nothing to bring to society.
To some extent I blame the media for this: a radio phone-in is hardly the best vehicle for an informed debate about the intricacies of the global economic system, but they could at least try. When the belaboured occupy representative was attempting to explain that there is an alternative to rampant unrestrained global capitalism, he was continually challenged and told that his ideas had already failed in Soviet Russia. This is such an outdated and misrepresentative view it beggars belief that it is still trotted out. I encountered it in the 1980s when supporters of Thatcherism routinely invited me to ‘go and live in Russia or China if you don’t like it here’.
I visited the protest at St Paul’s and when I was in the US I visited Occupy Philly. On both occasions I met interested, earnest and dedicated people – many of them young – who believed passionately in what they were doing. They had hope, they wanted to change the world, and they were doing something constructive about an economic and social system they believed was unfair. Yes there were a few of hippies there; yes, in Philly at least, there was the whiff of marijuana in the air, and some people could have washed more often, but they were doing something. More importantly to me – as a historian – was they were continuing a tradition of social protest that has very deep roots in British culture and society.
In the eighteenth century Britons protested about the price of wheat and bread, against the imposition of toll roads, at the enclosure of common land or at forced enlistment in to the armed forces. They rioted in London against attempts to overturn the laws prevented Catholics from holding public office and routinely demonstrated for or against individuals standing for parliament. The nineteenth century saw peaceful mass demonstrations in support of parliamentary reform and more violent and individual acts of social protest against the introduction of those new technologies in agriculture and manufactory which had adversely affected wages and employment. Real political protest emerged in the Chartist movement that set down a list of demands that challenged the inequality of early Victorian society. Agitation for political rights, including Women’s suffrage, continued throughout the century and into the twentieth and eventually forced those in power to make concessions to the mass of working people after the First World War.
In the 1880s Trafalgar Square and several of London’s parks were frequently occupied by hundreds of homeless people. During the day their supporters made speeches to those gathered under Nelson’s Column. At night the police moved in and tried to clear the great unwashed away. But they returned and some set up camps and tree houses in the parks and around the Square. Local residents grumbled and wrote angry letters to The Times and the chief of police. One enterprising copper took it upon himself to drench the benches in cold water to put off anyone inclined to sleep on them. His superiors fretted and wondered whether clearing public spaces of the needy and unemployed would simply make the police even more unpopular amongst the lower orders. The protests and occupations came to a head and eventually ended in 1887 when Sir Charles Warren’s attempt to ban demonstrations in London backfired and the mob fought pitched battles with the boys in blue: several heads were cracked and at least one innocent bystander died under the hooves of a police horse.
The occupiers of the 1880s were far from an organised political movement although a plethora of socialists, anti-free traders, Irish nationalists and anti-alienists all tried to co-opt them to their causes. They, and many liberal minded Victorians, realised that there was something wrong in society. Late Victorian Britain was far from an equal society; the rich were getting richer and the poor were living in ever more desperate and degraded conditions. The occupation of Trafalgar Square – that symbol of the mighty all conquering British Empire – was an uncoordinated attempt and shaking the complacency of the Victorian ruling classes. It may not have achieved much but when you have no power, economically or politically, what else can you do but make seemingly futile gestures?
I’m not suggesting the Occupy movement’s actions have been futile – far from it. But alongside the Uncut movement, the student campaign against tuition fees and the anti-globalisation demonstrations across the world they form part of a widespread challenge to the consensus position that unrestricted global capitalism in the form we have now is the only economic system that can succeed in the modern world. So I say more power to their tents and sleeping bags, good for them and thank you for standing up to the multinationals and corporations and the government and for offering an alternative perspective. In a modern Britain where party politics has become so debased and people feel almost as disenfranchised as those that campaigned for the vote 200 years ago we need social protestors like Occupy to remind us (and those that rule us) just whose World this is.
For information on the Occupy movement’s economic ideas visit http://occupylsx.org/?page_id=2855
If you want to read more about the occupation of Trafalgar Square in the 1880s then follow this link to my book London’s Shadows http://www.continuumbooks.com/books/detail.aspx?BookId=132307&SearchType=Basic
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