Britain: We need a spirit of protest

October 23, 2010

Out-of-favour Manchester United star Wayne Rooney must look in the papers every morning and think: “How does [Liberal Democrat MP and business secretary in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition] Vince Cable get away with it?

“Just like me, a year ago he was a national hero, the embodiment of hope, and now he’s a bumbling fool and revealed as a cheat. But he's allowed to carry on as he pleases and isn’t even substituted.

“I want a transfer to the Liberal Democrats.”

For example, Cable campaigned for election on a promise to abolish university fees, even signing a pledge to prove his commitment.

In government, he interpreted that pledge by doubling the fees. Because abolish and double are like stalagmites and stalactites, it’s so easy to get them mixed up.

His party must have won countless votes as a result of that pledge, but he says now he’s in government he has to be realistic, in which case the entire election campaign was pointless.

When they had those debates, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg might as well have said: “I’ll agree with whoever makes me a minister, so rather than waste time on what we think, in my time I'll show you my favourite scenes from Only Fools and Horses.”

It’s especially unsettling that such blatant lying came from Cable because he looked like a sweet old uncle, but it turns out he combines the demeanour of Rudyard Kipling with the economic ideals of former Thatcher government member Norman Tebbit.

So every time he makes a statement he should be introduced with a cuddly slow deep voice saying: “Mr Cable wanted to be in the government. So he set about doing all the things he'd said would be disastrous a few weeks ago.

“Because Mr Cable is an exceedingly power-hungry unprincipled little snake.”

Yet no matter how vicious the cuts, all the parties insist it’s wrong to protest or strike to stop them because they’re being made by an elected government. But if they’re doing things they promised not, they’ve been elected fraudulently.

In any case, this is the thinking that got us into this mess. Most people are aware the people being made to pay for the debt aren’t those who caused it, but we’re resigned to putting up with it.

Ministers could march round hospital wards ripping out drips and catheters and kidney machines, and we’d say to the patients: “You'd better put up with it dear, they do have a mandate.”

They could announce chemotherapy patients have to pay for their treatment by selling their bald heads for advertising space, and the level of protest would be a letter to The Times signed by 37 doctors and a British Medical Association treasurer in a personal capacity.

Whereas in France, they’re running up and down the street, striking and setting fire to random objects and their cuts haven’t even started yet. It’s as if this is their warm-up match to get in practice and decide on the best formation for the real tournament.

The Spanish have had a general strike, the Greeks are in a state of permanent revolt, and even the Belgians have had strikes and mass demonstrations.

How humiliating is that? We're being put to shame by the bloody Belgians.

How did we become so subservient and docile? It’s as if the rest of Europe is preparing for mass protest and our slogan is, “I can't make it I'm afraid, I've got a tummy ache”.

The unions have called for a demonstration against the cuts next March. Next bloody March.

Even then, they’ll probably get frightened and call it off, and replace it with a “Gasp of Action”, in which we’re asked to go “Ooh” at the same time to show our displeasure at the fire service being sold off to the Balfour Beatty construction company.

It’s often claimed protests don’t work. But then why have the French retained pensions, services and working hours that few people here could aspire to?

You can understand why a population feels unable to confront unfairness if it’s up against the North Korean army or the Zimbabwean dictatorship.

But surely we can’t allow every public service to be dismantled and the poorest 90% of the population wrung dry with no opposition, and say: “Well what could we do? I mean, never mind Mugabe or Kim Jong-Il, we were up against Vince Cable.”

[Mark Steel is a British socialist and comedian. This first appeared in the Independent.]

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