Michael Kelly: Protests no longer have a place in our cities
MASS rallies are simply just a nuisance that disrupt the lives of too many for very little political advantage, writes Michael Kelly
IS GLASGOW City Council being forward thinking, too “elf and safety conscious” or merely undemocratic in seeking to rule out the use of George Square as a gathering or dispersal point for mass rallies? Certainly the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) is not happy.
This body, which plans yet another dreary protest against the government’s austerity policies in October, has come out in the strongest possible terms against the proposals from the political wing of the Labour movement which runs the city from the very same address.
Not happy with having won the argument against the coalition’s slash and burn policies, they insist on carrying on with a demonstration that not only will damage our already sick economy, but will disrupt the life of the city for a long day to the inconvenience of other citizens and visitors alike.
Mass gatherings for political purposes here and now rarely have any effect on policy-makers. There is not much evidence that they have ever produced immediate gains in this country. But in previous eras, when the right to vote was restricted and communications were poor, the coming together of disaffected groups in large numbers did indicate to the authorities how deep discontent was. And, sometimes, reform followed.
More often, it was set back. Governments were afraid of popular mass protest from the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 to the Battle of George Square in 1919. In both cases the Crown used force to suppress the protests. In an echo of that Wat Tyler-led revolt – over that eternal trigger of resentment, the poll tax – George Square also hosted Tommy Sheridan’s illegal campaign against the community charge. The “riotous assembly” for an extension of the franchise which provoked the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819 merely postponed reform for over 12 years.
Taking the international view, squares do seem to be the civic spaces in which protesters prefer to gather: Red Square, Wenceslas Square, Tiananmen Square, Tahrir Square. Of course, all of these traditional meeting grounds for protests are located in capital cities. Maybe Scottish agitators could be persuaded that Charlotte or Trafalgar should be the preferred venues depending on which government’s policies they are opposing.
Today we see that mass protests in undemocratic states can overturn governments. Whether events like the Arab Spring will in fact lead to more freedom or greater tyranny is not yet clear. But it seems obvious that recent protests here have not had any immediate adverse consequences for governments.
The millions who blocked London to protest against the invasion of Iraq were left disappointed. Student rallies have not affected government policies on university grants. And the general rejection of current economic policies springs not from days of action, but the obvious failure of reinforcing austerity in a time of recession – predicted and proved by the trade unions, among others. Mass protests may play a part in influencing a national mood, but their effect is very long term and only when they are supported by other, more general expressions of discontent.
The council, in seeking to justify its proposed ban, cites difficulties of crowd control and the dangers marchers face from traffic. However, there is no evidence that political marches in Glasgow have ever recently posed problems for the police or led to pedestrians being killed or injured. Political protesters in Scotland are generally very well led and disciplined and their actions rarely result in damage to people or property.
The initiative for re-examining the whole question of marches and rallies stems from the embarrassments and hostility triggered by the large number of Orange walks which display the narrow and bigoted aspect of Glasgow culture. The STUC is right to refute any similarities between them and, as they call them, “traditional parades”. Protests in favour of the public sector and social justice always attract solid support from Glaswegians. However, the Council would find itself in court trying to defend an impossible position if it attempted to discriminate between those causes that it approved and those that it found distasteful.
Equally, it is rather cynical for the trade unions to play the disability card by claiming that moving such rallies to popular and easily accessible venues – such as Glasgow Green or Kelvingrove Park, both used for all sorts of public entertainment – would restrict the rights of those with “mobility difficulties”.
The main reason for supporting a ban of rallies in George Square is not opposition to the aims of the STUC current campaign. Anything that causes this government to think about changing course is welcome.
Nor does it lie in the obvious futility of thinking that marching around Glasgow will have the slightest impact on Cameron or Clegg. Rather, it stems from an analysis of what the City Fathers have been trying to do for Glasgow: basically turn into a thriving business centre based on the service industries. Among the most important of these is the visitor trade. Visitors do not need to be inconvenienced by demonstrations in the city centre as they admire the architecture, look for a restaurant, catch the sight-seeing bus, or attempt to tour the City Chambers. In fact, many of the larger conferences are granted a civic welcome there. They don’t want to be pushing past banners or through crowd control officers to get to their buffet lunch.
Mass rallies now are just a nuisance. They cost a city money. They are an unnecessary use of police time. They disrupt the lives of too many for very little political advantage. They do draw some attention to a cause. A crowd does attract cameras. But the same amount of publicity can be generated in minutes through the social media if the message is strong and popular enough.
And there are plenty of other platforms where points can be made without irritating many of the very people protesters are trying to convert. It is a very clumsy way of trying to unite and motivate the protesters, when a diverse free press is available. On the balance of convenience, the council is right to remove these from the heart of the city. They are a thing of the past.
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