Article – Protests

Empty Protestations

(originally published 1/9/03 in TVS Magazine)

So a million people weren’t enough. The general consensus amongst the British people wasn’t enough either. All those pop stars, poets, fashion designers and artistic directors of theatre houses were shouting into the wind all along. We went to war against Iraq anyway.

What has happened to the spirit of protest? Little old ladies from Tunbridge Wells could see that the war against Iraq was going to be, at best, pointless and, at worst, liable to cause a hell of a lot more problems than it was meant to solve. Once upon a time, the Poll Tax was effectively defeated by the spirit of protest (just as it had been the first time it had been introduced in the 14th century), now we can’t even stop a simple war that managed to unite the entire rest of the world, except Spain and those with urgent financial interests.

The fact was that the infamous Poll Tax riots did very little to stop the Poll Tax itself. As Mark Thomas pointed out at the time, those afore-mentioned little old ladies in Tunbridge Wells stopped the Poll Tax, when the middle England-loving government of the time realised that if this group were pissed off about the whole thing a change was swiftly needed. They even managed to get rid of the terminally damaged prime minister. The poll tax rioters themselves were easily ignored, although the anarchy-loving brigade who participated in it were happy to take the credit.

That’s the trouble with hindsight, we can get the wrong idea about things. It is long-believed that the hippies were instrumental in stopping the Vietnam war. If they did, it took a long time for them to get their message across – the Vietnam war finished in 1975, ten years after it began and seven years after the protests were at their height. The thing that actually stopped the war was the inconvenient fact that North Vietnam won.

Perhaps the establishment prefers the idea that someone else brought about the end of the war. They may have been a bunch of drug-addled soap-avoiders, but they were American drug-addled soap-avoiders. The lesson that needs to be learnt here is that to protest effectively you must do so from a position of power. Those little old ladies from Tunbridge Wells may look daft but they held a hell of a sway over the government at the time. If someone similar was protesting during this war then maybe it would have been stopped before it began. Say, spontaneous marches by middle class vicars in Slough. But sadly all the eggs were put into one basket. The million-strong protest earlier in the year was notable for the heavy participation of the sort of people who are always protesting, such as the firebrand left wing crowd who never fail to turn up for any protest.

Just as an episode of Posh and Loaded is the best advertisement ever for radical Marxism, then the sight of a load of scowling students wielding placards that the week before said similarly forceful things about foot and mouth or the fireman’s strike is the best incentive ever to turn your back on politics and let the non-bald person who is currently Prime Minster run the country however he or she sees fit.

The anti-war coalition should have been a lot more powerful, because that’s exactly what it was: a coalition of wildly disparate groups brought together by a justifiably worthy cause. But a nation was already wearied by the self-righteous and inevitably self-plugging nonsense being spouted by all those pop stars; it was unfortunate timing that the run up to the war should coincide with awards season. A week after the Brit Awards Chris Martin was showing similar fury when he was asked questions about Gwyneth.

Our spirit of protest seems to be limited to pointless marches and drunken pop stars at awards ceremonies. What’s needed is different action – instead of one big march, say lots of smaller ones that can get people involved at a local level. This is unlikely because the likes of the SWP like their big gestures. Or how about those afore-mentioned pop stars leading an economic boycott of American goods? Again unlikely, considering their record companies won’t much appreciate it. A genuinely united front from the church against a war would also have considerable force, given the importance Tony Blair places on his Christianity.

The war ultimately went ahead, despite the subsequent justification of no WMD and the slow slaughter of our troops, because most people weren’t willing to be passionate about it; and those that were tend to be just as passionate about much less important things.


About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at) or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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