A week may be a long time in politics, but it is no time at all in protest. As the
inhabitants of Parliament Square have demonstrated, even a decade is as nothing so long as you have a constantly morphing cause, a council with no balls, and a small but steady stream of acolytes.
Last weekend I watched a bridal party sneak in through the side entrance of St Paul’s Cathedral. This weekend I went back, curious to see whether the protest that had kept them from entering
through the main door had located a point yet.
Walking up from Fleet Street the first sight that greets the visitor is a large banner saying ‘root out usury.’ A surge of Presbyterian nostalgia powered through me. Perhaps I could identify with
this protest after all? Like most of the rest of the country I have no shortage of reasons to feel angry at the behaviour of those individuals who benefited from bad credit default swaps and
granted mortgages to people who had never saved in their lives.
But then you are reminded of why all protest movements in Britain — however well intentioned — are doomed to fail. If the health of societies can be judged by the manner of their
assemblies then modern Britain is indeed a fly-trap for the silly.
The first man I saw looked strikingly like the newly-elected President of Ireland would look had someone just robbed him of his trousers. The slight, old man was performing a sort of jig to a
tape-recorder. Attached to the lower part of this tunic-like garment was a Guinness advert from Kerry and a huge Star of David. I watched for a while, trying to work out whether he was a wild
philo-Semite or a wile anti-Semite — but the big ‘Why?’ surrounding him lingered. It was an appropriate warm-up for the main event.
Despite all the focus in the national media, there are actually very few protestors at St Pauls. Press photographers and casual observers almost certainly outnumber what tent-dwellers are there.
You get the impression that the tents have been pitched by optimists hoping to stay long enough to claim squatters’ rights. Most seem happy. A homeless-looking man and his dog, sitting outside a
tent, eating food off a paper plate, seems utterly uninterested in events, but is clearly chuffed by the real estate he has found himself inhabiting.
Elsewhere, the event will be familiar to anyone who has observed the severe silliness that has despoiled British politics for the last decade. Of course the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) are out in
force, trying to warm-up the politics of Stalin and Mao, presumably in the hope that the youngish crowd won’t know what unparalleled genocides their ideology wrought. Instead of being hounded out,
the SWP appear to provide an organisational backbone to the whole event.
Meanwhile, on the steps of the Cathedral a man in a Tony Blair mask holds a sign saying ‘Take me to the Hague’. A ‘Respect’ party supporter holds a banner calling for the breaking of what she calls
the ‘siege’ of Gaza. And the walls of the square are covered with posters criticising the police — primarily, of course, for ‘racism’. At least one poster particularly requests that the
police keep their hands off ‘young people, people of colour and sex workers’. The police that are there look on benignly, with no apparent intent to lay hands on sex workers or anyone else. They
are ensuring that everyone is safe.
A little further around the side of the Cathedral, a buxom girl with two ruddy-faced male friends advertise ‘free hugs’ to the passing public. She is undoubtedly the preferred hug-ee among those
who take them up on their offer. On occasion, one of the ruddy-faced young men throws himself in to form a sort of unasked for threesome. The ugliest one on the end doesn’t get even a whiff of this
action, though reserves some dignity as he becomes first voyeur and finally hug-pimp to his friends.
While all this goes on a succession of speakers addresses the main crowd on the steps. A clergyman of a minor denomination asks any children in the crowd to come to the front because he is going to
tell a story. In one sense the whole crowd might have taken the opportunity to shuffle forward a few feet. But in fact there is little movement. What parents are there may be political naifs, but
they are suspicious enough to know that they shouldn’t let their children out of their grasp at the request of a stranger in a dog-collar who is now stroking a soft-toy.
Later there is a young man who is someone in student politics. He introduces himself as ‘gay’ and also as ‘anti-racist’ before taking a potentially dangerous punt by attacking the Daily Mail. He
receives plenty of cheers from a clearly impressed crowd. His speech focuses on the importance of ending racism. He is particularly exercised by the English Defence League and their possible threat
to mosques. That he and his friends have recently managed to close down a Cathedral is a point he fails to explore.
He promotes himself as a successor of those who fought the Blackshirts and puts another shoe in history’s door by comparing himself and his audience to Martin Luther King. To hear him speak, and
the audience respond, you might think that gangs of racist bankers are expected to attack at any moment. I glance up towards Fleet Street and wonder for a moment whether the campers I had seen
earlier in an outlying tent advertising ‘meditation for all at 3pm’ are even still with us?
The next speaker introduces himself as a Quaker and also a ‘queer’. While admiring his commitment to alliteration, I’m getting bored by all this gay stuff and wonder if anyone has introduced
themselves as ‘straight’ yet? He goes off on the usual tangents. It is all slightly mystifying. Perhaps it’s something in the water. Perhaps it’s something in the port-a-loos. But judging from the
speakers and the crowd’s response to them, it seem those gathered really are under the impression that our current economic problems arise from the fact that Britain is a repressive, racist and
indeed fascistic state and that nothing short of a lot of hugs, some serious meditation and the political assistance of the SWP could conceivably put us back on track.
I’ve had enough. But before leaving I look up once again at the sign that has been put up on the side of the square: ‘Tahrir Square, EC4M’. It is probably the most casually racist thing I have seen
in years. When the youth of Egypt stood up to the Mubarak dictatorship they risked their lives and lost their friends. They did so because they lived in a country with no right of assembly, no
right of protest and no capacity to make their voice heard through a fraudulent and rigged electoral-process.
Here in London this tiny group of people have convinced themselves that their cause is identical. They claim that, like those gunned-down campaigning for freedom in Egypt, they represent the
people. Repeatedly the refer to the fact that the 1 per cent cannot stop them. But if they are the 99 per cent why are there so few of them? Perhaps the 99 per cent already intuit that this small
band of protestors does not merely lack answers, but has the wrong answers to a real problem.
Anyone who managed to go to St Paul’s while it was open will know that it was renowned for an echo which took a good ten seconds or more to fade. The echo-chamber now operating on its steps makes a
much less pleasant din and creates a bigger mush than anything that has been heard inside. But, high on the sound of their own voices and fuelled by the silly grandiosity of their claims, it seems
unlikely that this camp of bogus revolutionaries will disappear anytime soon.