It was a long, noisy, good-natured parade of protest that wound its way through London yesterday. The unions had handed out sort of vuvuzelas (remember the football World Cup?). The noise was pretty awful, but much better than the Socialist Workers trying to rally the crowd with the same slogan they’ve been using for the whole of my life (What do we want? A general strike! etc.). And there were a lot of people. I got to Trafalgar Square at about noon, and the head of the parade arrived soon afterwards. We finally joined in about 12:45, and there was no sign of it abating. When we finally got to Hyde Park (about 1:30 or so), apparently there were still thousands of people back on the Embankment who hadn’t even started to move. As many of the speakers pointed out, the Big Society was here in force: a huge number of people saying ‘no’ to the present government’s decimation of public services.
A note on decimation: it was originally the Roman punishment for a unit which failed in battle: 10% of the troops were selected for execution. Compare: “the 25 most disadvantaged councils according to the 2007 Index of Multiple Deprivation will see their budgets reduced by an average of 9.4 per cent in 2011/12”, while “the 25 least disadvantaged councils will have their budgets reduced by an average of 4.6 per cent”.
No, our march won’t stop the government from doing what they’ve planned. In a precise functional sense it was useless. But still more useless not to make your protest. We were marching for an alternative which won’t immediately happen, in political terms, but which needs to be made visible against the language of ‘there is no alternative’. Margaret Thatcher used to say that, I recall. She was wrong then, and David Cameron is wrong now. There are always alternatives, and the art of politics is in choosing them. Each has its dangers as well as its opportunities.
The decision to cut now, and cut deeply, was a choice not an inevitability. And 250,000 people were there to say it was a bad choice. UK government policy is demonstrating in practice exactly the same ideological commitment to the ‘small state’ that neo-liberals have held since the 1970s. Oh, was it those neo-liberals who also thought the market should be free to play with numbers however it felt fit? My goodness, so it was – and those numbers turned out to be minuses on all our bank accounts.
So if the ‘march for the alternative’ reminds us all for a little while that things could be different, maybe it prepares the ground for things to actually become different. That’s what I’m hoping.