During the TUC March for the Alternative in March 2011, I picked up a placard depicting Prime Minister David Cameron with Lucifer’s horns, wearing a nosepiece. In the background were Pyramids and on top of them, a Palestinian flag. Protesters gathering around the burning effigy of a Trojan horse in Oxford Circus, chanted “Allahu Akbar!”. “Springtime – The New Student Rebellions”, edited by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri (Verso, 2011), a compilation of articles about the student protests over rises in tuition fees and cuts to university funding places the events of the last year within a wider context of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond. It is perhaps to be expected that activists and protesters in this and other parts of the Western world find inspiration in aspects of the Arab Spring, but can a real comparison be drawn between the situation here in the UK and events in the Middle East and the Maghreb?
At an early stage of the research for diG.shaKe.riSe.andblEEed,myloVe. I contacted a student activist from Oxford University and asked to interview her. The activist, who asked to be identified by the pseudonym lasophielle, agreed to give an interview by exchange of emails. In response to an open question about the differences in expectation protests have “in the UK (functioning democracy) compared with other places, e.g. Egypt?” lasophielle gave the following answer:
“The authorities are keen to stress the great difference between ‘functioning democracies’ like the UK, and ‘places like Egypt’. I largely reject that difference. All over the world, disempowered, cheated people – workers, students, women – fight one same fight against the domination of elites who hold a monopoly on power. I back the calls to ‘walk like an Egyptian’ here in the UK in the battle against the Tory cuts. I support the call to turn ‘Trafalgar into Tahrir’ Square.”
I put the same question, and relayed lasophielle’s above reply to Simon Albert. Simon read history at Oxford University. He then qualified as a solicitor and practised as an EU and Competition (anti-trust) lawyer in the City of London, Brussels and Paris. He is currently studying for a Masters degree in History of International Relations at the London School of Economics (LSE). Simon responded with the following article.
Simon’s piece is the first in a series of articles commissioned for diG.shaKe.riSe.andblEEed,myloVe. that will be published here. I hope you find his article engaging and thought provoking.
Eran Tsafrir, London, January 2012
‘Zenga Zenga: A Panglossian View’ by Simon Albert
A meinluftgesheft commission for diG.shaKe.riSe.andblEEed,myloVe.
Over the last few months, one of the biggest YouTube hits in the Middle East has been the ‘Zenga Zenga’ song, featuring (the late) Colonel Gaddafi ranting against a trance music backdrop and a gyrating go-go dancer in a camouflage green bikini. Surreal it is, and what’s more, would appear almost wholly irrelevant to the question of how best to influence the UK public policy debate. However, when one considers the extremes which that song represents, it throws into sharper relief how best to effect change in this country.
The dictatorships which we have (so far) seen fall across the Middle East since the start of 2011 have shared a number of common features. They have ostensibly been secular republics ruled by ageing and tyrannical military despots, who have intimidated their peoples into submission. Some have been ‘friends’ of the West, others have had a more ambiguous status. All have depended on the same pillars of a secret police force, repression, corruption and a personality cult to focus power on their persons and their chosen circle. For their peoples to take any action against their régimes appeared almost inconceivable, so effective had the intimidation proved to be. The ‘fear barrier’ had to be broken and spoofs such as the ‘Zenga Zenga’ song were the tools to do it. The fact that its creator was in fact an Israeli Jewish clubber from Tel Aviv lent even more irony to the situation. The effect in this case was that enough Libyans were no longer so scared by Gaddafi’s threats to hunt them down ‘alley by alley’ that they took up arms to free themselves and change their country. The final irony is that Gaddafi was dragged out of just the kind of culvert contemplated by the song.
However uncertain the final destination of these revolutions may be, their initial political aims were very clear. After years of humiliating repression and economic failure, all of these peoples wanted to remove the cliques responsible for this stagnation. Met with official violence, the only response was a move away from peaceful protest to varying degrees of resistance. The figurative political pressure cookers not only boiled over but blew their valves and took out most of their surroundings with them. When one cannot simply vote out the standing government, destroying the state apparatus would appear to be the only solution. (Syria is potentially heading in this direction).
The question then becomes how to rebuild the state in an environment where there is no shared political culture and the concept of a ‘loyal opposition’ is a contradiction in terms. If we now turn to the UK, it is immediately obvious that these are not concerns which face us here. Seen in the light of the protests across the Middle East, the violent protests and riots we have witnessed since the formation of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition government in May 2010 not only shocked opinion both within the country and beyond, but also appeared completely counter-productive. Where there have been protests with ostensibly political concerns, their degeneration into violence has discredited and damaged the causes for which the peaceful majority were campaigning. Attacking the Conservatives’ Millbank headquarters (October 2010), the royal limousine (December 2010), or Fortnum & Mason after the TUC March for the Alternative (March 2011) simply gave ready-made headlines and images to shock and alienate newspaper readers and TV viewers across the country.
Those who have tried to draw parallels between their protests against tuition fee increases or spending cuts and events in the Maghreb have thereby shown quite how distant their frustrations are from their Arab contemporaries. Coupled with the utter incoherence of most of those on the streets, no discernible political message can be found in the simple theft of plasma TVs and fashionable sportswear.
Even if the Queen is on the money and across the media, Britain does not labour under a head of state whose personality cult is enforced with ‘disappearances’ and torture chambers. There is simply no comparison between the protests we have seen on the far side of the Mediterranean and the Middle East and what has happened here, because we have sufficient political space for all reasonable opinions to be debated. (For instance, those protesters camped outside St Paul’s may have misguidedly inconvenienced the Church of England but they are at least perfectly within their rights to do so). The only possible parallel is a degree of genuine economic distress whose extremes are felt in Arab countries in a way which the British population cannot begin to imagine. Even given the present downturn, our British institutions work because they are based on the consent of the people which they govern and the accountability of the rulers to the ruled. What some people appear to lack though is the social cohesion which would prevent them from swinging from the Cenotaph or gratuitously torching long-standing family businesses and looting their contents. In contrast, presented with the opportunity to take what they pleased, there were no reports of any looting by the Japanese after the huge earthquake there which destroyed so many homes and businesses.
Despite the obvious recent scandals, our Parliament, courts, media, civil service, police and armed forces all function more or less as they are meant to. (Let’s just leave the banking system out of the picture for the purposes of this article…). That is why Britain is quite rightly viewed around the world as a fundamentally stable society. So how should we influence public policy in a way which actually addresses the issues which the violent protests and rioting we have witnessed since last year have highlighted?
In some ways, there is nothing new to be suggested. One can write to one’s MP or councillors as people have been doing for decades. Even as their sales decline, readers still contact newspaper editors with their comments, with email more likely than the Royal Mail. All of our representatives have their own websites which encourage communication. Facebook and Twitter allow instant broadcasting of opinions, with BlackBerry Messenger apparently being the tool which flummoxed the initially outnumbered police facing the rioters. The Today programme is a national institution which can shape the daily news agenda in a way which few other countries can replicate. Campaigning NGOs highlight abuses and publish reports which embarrass the government into action. The right to protest is protected by law, with marches and protests happening all the time, so long as they are co-ordinated with the police to safeguard their routes. The Labour government passed the Human Rights Act in 1998 so that the European Convention on Human Rights would be part of British law. Where protests have gone wrong and people in authority have had to be brought to book, this has happened, for instance in the Tomlinson case, where a manslaughter trial is due at the Old Bailey in October 2012. The courts have heard a number of challenges against the police tactic of ‘kettling,’ one of which was successful in April 2011.
Discussing matters is not the same as taking positive action to remedy the failings which have luridly draped themselves across our TV screens. It is too easy to leave matters to a distant state and expect others to take care of matters. Perhaps that attitude is the flip side of the lack of social cohesion which leads rioters to loot and burn. The people who gathered on the mornings after the rioting the nights before, to sweep up the smashed glass and repair some of the damage, certainly addressed the immediate effects of the rioting. The question remains how best the long term issues can be tackled.
One of the most interesting current examples of people coming together to improve their neighbourhoods has been the phenomenon of ‘free schools.’ Parents dissatisfied with the education available to their children locally have taken advantage of the government’s proposals to create new schools free of local authority control, whilst remaining state funded. If collective action is needed to encourage people to take responsibility for their own prospects, this would seem to be the perfect example. There is no better way to get ahead than to provide the best possible education and training suited to local children. If people were looking to help the areas which recently went up in flames, perhaps they should consider investing their time and resources into these initiatives.
Critics might argue that this entire piece reeks of complacency and the suggestion of getting involved in local education projects is feeble and inadequate. However, the circumstances of this country fortunately do not require the radical solutions which protesters in the Middle East and Maghreb have found necessary. Our institutions work and we should not hesitate from working within them as much as possible. It is not simply a matter of improving education – thus, those fathers who abandon their families, thereby creating unstable single-parent units, should be made to feel their behaviour is just as socially unacceptable as drink-driving has become. It is our reluctance to do so, our lack of initiative, which is the true complacency and risks feeble outcomes in those areas which need improvement the most. We do not need satirical videos to break any ‘fear factor’ preventing us from acting. We just need the willpower to do it ourselves.