To hear establishment figures talk, you’d think that protests were pointless and those who do it are equally pointless. Furthermore, listening to the same people, you’d also be forgiven for thinking that the only people that protest are students. This, of course, isn’t true but it reveals something about the mental workings of the complainants: they despise learning and erudition and see students, along with the unemployed as feckless and indolent. Indeed, this is a commonly-held view on the British political right and some in the Labour Party. Protesting is seen as an activity limited to lazy students, who should be in lectures instead of on the streets.
Years of tabloid anti-student ridicule has fixed these tropes firmly in the minds of Britain’s reactionaries, who see universities, not as places in which long-held assumptions are challenged but places of left-wing (sic) indoctrination. Let’s leave aside those views and tropes for now and concentrate instead on protests and those who view them as useless.
One of the complaints made about Jeremy Corbyn since he became leader of the Labour Party was that he would turn the party into a ‘party of protests’. This claim rested on the assumption that because Corbyn frequently appeared at rallies and demonstrations, that the party will spend much of its time waving placards instead of involving itself in the serious business of ‘yah boo sucks’ parliamentary politics of which the Tories have excelled themselves for many years. In this case, the word ‘protest’ is deployed as an insult, because we all know Westminster politics is where the action is. Right?
Today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, is a case in point: Theresa May replied to one of Corbyn’s questions with “I lead a party of government, unlike the gentleman opposite, who leads protests” (I’ve paraphrased this). It was meant to be a snappy comeback, but it struck me as petty and ridiculous. It also revealed the narrow-mindedness of those who see protest a useless. Governments and certain politicians may frequently trumpet their absurd democratic credentials, but they loathe protests and see them, wrongly, as anti-democratic.
It is likely that those who despise and ridicule protests have never had to protest in their lives. Why? Because not only are they tied to the establishment, they are also comfortable. They have been encouraged to see politics as something reserved only for professionals, who are drawn from the ‘correct’ class. In other words, those people who see themselves as a our ‘betters’. Tories rarely, if ever, protest and when they do, it usually results in a total washout.
Protests have affected change in Britain and this cannot be denied or elided with glib questions like “since when did protests achieve anything” or the blanket dismissals of professional politicians. Protests have achieved a great deal throughout history. If it were not for protests, women would not have been given the vote. If not for the Chartists’ many protests, the vote would not have been extended to all men. The many Poll Tax protests, which culminated in the riot of May 1990, resulted in the end of that hated tax. These are only a few examples of successful protests.
Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the first party leader to appear on the platform at protests. The former Liberal Democrat leader, the late Charles Kennedy, was a frequent speaker at anti-war protests as was former SNP leader, Alex Salmond. So when the likes of Theresa May or the legions of right-wing commenters in the ‘below the line’ threads on newspaper websites ridicule Corbyn for appearing at demonstrations, remember this: these people aren’t democrats and have a limited understanding of politics generally. They have neither the gumption nor the passion to take to the streets themselves and are only capable of carping from the sidelines. Remember also that protesting is a legitimate form of political activity, whatever the Tory tabloids and their representatives in Parliament tell you.