Peter Ross: some Scottish demonstrations over fees are a more sedate affair

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'AWRIGHT, let's go," says Sean. "We're gonna do HSBC." This, on a late morning in Glasgow when the temperature is minus 12, is as close as you get to a cri de coeur.

Sean Clerkin, a 49-year-old call centre worker, is an organiser of Citizens United, an eclectic group of pensioners and anarchists, students and academics, public and private sector employees who are angry and fearful about the government's spending cuts.

Their response has been to occupy banks - entering, protesting and refusing to leave. So far they have occupied three: Glasgow branches of HBOS, Lloyds TSB and the Royal Bank of Scotland were all hit last month. Now they are on their way to a fourth occupation: HSBC on West Nile Street.

Citizens United consider themselves fellow travellers of the student protesters who recently brought chaos to Millbank and, last Thursday, brought violence to Westminster. Though Citizens United insist they are non-violent, they are driven by the same anger and sense of injustice which led to blood and bonfires in Parliament Square. They feel, to paraphrase David Cameron, that they are all in this together.

"It's more than just the students. There's something deeper happening in our society," says Clerkin. "There's definitely an undercurrent of militancy growing among people. This is the beginning of something."

Citizens United make a motley band, slogging up slushy streets, the air around them clouded with frozen breath and the smoke from roll-ups. They don't resemble the usual rent-a-mob. They range in age from mid-twenties to early eighties; visually, it's a real mix of mohicans, black anarchy flags, young women dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz, white hair and sensible anoraks. The OAP wing is very striking in this context. When they walk into a bank, it looks like the cast of Still Game gatecrashing an episode of The Apprentice.

There is no denying the seriousness of their intent, however. Citizens United argue that the economic crisis was caused by recklessness within the financial sector and that, despite this, bankers continue to enjoy "obscene salaries and bonuses" while the poor bear the brunt of the cuts. "This reminds me of the conditions in Paris in 1968 - the way the student occupations blossomed out into workers' struggles, and then the state repression that came afterwards," says Ian Cowan, 47. "That's what's coming."

We find ourselves, suddenly, in a new winter of discontent. Though the various causes may seem diverse - from anti-tuition fees to rage against the financial machine - they are all being driven by the economic crisis, by dismay at the coalition government's response, and by a visceral revulsion at a Cabinet which includes 23 millionaires.

These protests have grown widespread and heated because those involved see this as a straight fight between right and wrong, between the greedy and the needy. It's real us and them stuff. That is why the car of Charles and Camilla was attacked; suddenly, in the crowd's midst, it was the very embodiment of "them".

We'd better get used to this sort of thing. It's not going to stop any time soon. The point, I think, is that few of these campaigners truly believe that their demonstrations will change government policy. The mass rallies against the Iraq war taught people that no matter how many of them process in an orderly fashion and no matter how loudly they chant, the MPs will pay them no mind. This loss of faith in mainstream politics was compounded by the expenses scandal. "There's nobody left to fight for us but us," is how one protester puts it.

The results of this disillusioned mindset are destructive protests which are more about personal and national catharsis, expressions of hatred rather than hope. Scotland has not yet seen civil unrest on the scale of that in London, but resistance is growing here too, and will continue to grow as people, especially those in this country's large public sector, lose their jobs. "It will come to Scotland if policies aren't changed," says Clerkin, who has a long history of protest including the Glasgow housing stock transfer campaign. "When you have everything taken away, you have nothing to lose."

The UK Uncut group - expertly using Facebook and Twitter - have staged protests outside Scottish branches of Topshop and Vodafone, businesses targeted because of anger about the way they are alleged to conduct their tax affairs, and because Topshop boss Sir Philip Green advised the government on spending cuts. Citizens United have links with UK Uncut and plan actions with them next year. The future looks certain to be turbulent.

Mostly, these people are worried - desperately worried - about what will happen to Glasgow and elsewhere as the cuts bite. When they talk about working-class communities becoming wastelands, it's clear that they can see it in their mind's eye because they are part of those communities themselves and subject to the same pressures. One protester, Margo Kirkwood, 55, is unemployed. She talks about the difficulty in surviving on 54 a week. She has been seriously ill because, she says, she cannot afford to feed herself properly.

Another woman, Letitia MacGillivray, is 81, and worked all her days in nursing. She was a young nurse when the National Health Service was established and was proud to serve within it. Now she is concerned about the future of the welfare state. She saw it born; must she now watch it die?

The older members of Citizens United are fearful too for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What sort of society are they going to live in? Will they be able to find work? This altruistic anxiety is what is driving them to occupy banks.

At about quarter past eleven, we enter HSBC. The protesters gather in the centre and hold up posters. One shows a decapitated Cameron and Clegg. Alice Campbell, a 34-year-old nurse, hands out leaflets. Sean Clerkin, speaking loudly, makes an announcement. "This is an occupation by Citizens United to protest the cuts in public services," he explains. "Banks like this caused the recession. 83 billion worth of cuts. The banks caused this with toxic investments and it's absolutely wrong. We must tax the banks and go after the tax evaders. We would invite customers here to join us."

In fact, the customers are ushered out the door as quickly as possible by HSBC staff, who then close the bank. A security door glides down, shutting us in and the public out. Citizens United strike up a version of Jingle Bells with the lyrics altered to refer to banking and the cuts. The bank workers switch off their PCs and gather at the far end of the bank in a bemused huddle. Senior staff look furious. Kath Parrington, the branch manager, approaches Sean Clerkin. "Just to let you know," she says, "we are calling the police."

They soon arrive. Five officers in bright yellow jackets. A police officer speaks to Sean. "You're entitled to have a peaceful protest, but at the moment your protest isn't very peaceful. You're alarming the customers and they are leaving."

Someone laughs at this. "Jingle Bells causes fear and alarm? Christ knows what would have happened if we'd done Hark The Herald Angels Sing."

At 11.45am, Sergeant Prentice from the Strathclyde Police turns up. He doesn't look festive. "The choice is yours," he tells the protesters. "If you refuse to leave, you will be arrested on the premises for breach of the peace."

They leave, offering chocolates to tellers and police on the way out. There are no takers.

The bank was closed for around an hour. What was the point of the occupation? What was the point of what happened in London? What will be the point this coming Wednesday during the national day of protest against welfare and housing benefit, or on Saturday when high street stores around Britain are again targeted by UK Uncut?

At the moment it's hard to say where all this is leading. It's astonishing, though, how quickly it has happened. When Jimmy Reid died in August, a number of commentators suggested that his passing symbolised the end of an era of protest. What a difference a few months make.

Charles MacPherson, 74, is a member of Citizens United. A former shipyard worker, he's an eloquent and principled man, full of humour and strength and spark, and I greatly enjoyed listening to him for an hour. He said a lot of things, but one simple phrase stands out: "There's just too much greed. We have to rid our society of it." That seems to me the impulse at the heart of all this unrest.

It will be fascinating, in the weeks and months ahead, to see where this mutinous and stormy voyage takes us and whether, eventually, it will sink the coalition government.