I seem to have spent most of my time of late pointing out that the Emperor’s willy is waving in the wind and yesterday I had to do it yet again. Since the Tories got back in a month ago there has been a spate of anti austerity marches. People have been getting out on the streets and making their voices heard. Or at least that’s what they think… The nearest anything has got to making a dent into the iron clad, teflon coated, surface of the Westminster political elite was the Saturday after the election when the city of London was flooded with protesters and all hell broke loose.
You heard about that? Didn’t you? You didn’t? Well, it’s o.k, not many people did. It wasn’t suppressed as such, no D notice was issued, but unless you are hooked up to the more obscure news channels you wouldn’t have know. I often think back to that line from the film ‘The Usual Suspects,’ “The greatest trick the Devil performed was to convince the world he didn’t exist.” The greatest trick that the U.K performed is to convince the world that this is a free and fair country. It is,in truth, neither. You can say what you like, do what you like (within reason) and no one will care. It will just make as much difference as shouting in space… mental note, don’t mention the obvious sci-fi tag line.
The last protest in this country to make any difference, was the poll tax riots. It shook Thatcher’s government to the core and sounded the death nell for her party’s time in office. By the time Tony Blair’s (conservative light) New Labour party got in, protest soon became an irrelevance. When three million people walk past the gates of Downing Street and it doesn’t even register on the radar of the Prime Minister it’s pretty clear that, as a form of protest, the march, is pointless. In fact, it is something even less useful… The ruling classes see protest marches for what the are, a pressure valve. People go somewhere, wave a banner about, if things turn nasty, maybe smash a few windows and steal a few things produced by some poor exploited sod somewhere else in the world, and go home. People feel they have done something to make a difference, then they go back home to their lives and the world merrily rolls along.
I was particularly sickened by the March in Hastings on Saturday, I noticed a disturbing new facet of what people laughably call protesting, that of the trendy protester. It seems that protesting is the cool new thing to do this week. Now please don’t get me wrong here, if there was a game of top trumps about who has suffered under the Conservative party I would win hands down. My parent’s house value was wiped out in the late seventies/early eighties and I was left stranded in a valueless house in Doncaster with my sister with learning difficulties looked after me whilst my parents had to work in london. Then I spent years sleeping on sofas amidst mould and insect infestations in overcrowded council house squalor. Before I hit my teens I saw bailiffs, debt collectors, evictions and afterwards I became a part time carer for my father who had worked himself into an early grave after years of grinding poverty. When I did finally get myself to university at the age of 25, it was just in time for the grants to disappear and the student loans to arrive. It was no surprise when at the age of twenty eight I had a complete nervous breakdown, followed by years as a virtual recluse. When, after many years of therapy, I started to lead an independent life again, the tories slithered their way back in and started taking apart everything that vulnerable people like myself relied upon.
Before long, anyone needing support was a “scrounger”, the media landscape changed, hardened and any level of empathy for the vulnerable was taken away. Health medicals were farmed out to companies like atos and the rules where rigged to make ducking stools and witchfinders seem reasonable and scientific. Like everyone else in my position I told who I could, shared what I knew, particularly in the new world of social media and… nobody listened. Well not many anyway. Which brings back me to yesterday, the Hastings march against austerity. As I saw the photos roll out, I wanted to vomit. There were people I know, people who have been through what I have, tossed from pillar to post, left to live in insecurity whilst their safety net has been cut away. And then there were the rest. One who feels uncomfortable if they have less than £5000 savings in the bank (today I have -798.68), another with a chain of buy-to-let properties, and yet another, who has a house, the ground floor entrance of which could comfortably house most of St Leonard’s rough sleepers. There were jobbing graffiti artists making the signs in between making serious coin being professionally stroppy and a daft kid who will inherit two houses one day waving a silly sign with a joke swear word on it. So what was the target of their ire? Why a workfare business of course! They all turned up outside Sports Direct, waved banners, sang songs and buggered off down the pub, to stuff more tax money into the government’s pockets and give the breweries (who are all landed gentry) a few more quid for the Eaton slush fund. Did this help any of the poor workers? not really. It probably embarrassed or annoyed as many as they supported. Did it put the wind up the director? Nope, he was many hundreds of miles away in a mansion somewhere. The only good it did was to the people who turned up. It made them feel less helpless for a second, let the choir show off a bit and a few people got to make and wave something. Yay! Good for you! I hear some of you saying “well it’s ok. you sitting on the sidelines sneering and mocking, what did you do that was so good?”
Well… me, I went and saw Bagpuss. Well actually I tried to but when I got to Canterbury, I couldn’t afford the £8
admission fee so I had some very nice chips instead, sat in the sun and watched the world go by.
I mention Bagpus for a reason… Oliver Postgate, his creator, or one of them was a conscientious objector, a member of C.N.D and a Quaker. What people never seemed to notice, was that his work was deeply political, the folk music throughout Bagpus was made by performers deeply linked to the trade union movement and there was a whole episode of the Clangers linked to the absurdities of the political system. Postgate knew as early as the Seventies that to get your message across, you need to be subversive.
I have taken this on board in my own work, adding a social message where I can, but doing it in as non preachy a way as possible, so that it gets in as much under the radar as possible, hoping to add some extra ballast to the tipping point of social consciousness. Wether it will ever make much difference is yet to be seen, but I can but try.
Artists have a history of making images of war and protest that sticks in the mind, be it Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s Disasters of War, these images stick with us. As do the works of great cartoonists and political satirists from Gillray to Scarfe
but there is a twisted irony in that many politicians now collect the work of their own satirical attacks. The more savage a cartoonist’s work is, the more a politician is likely to want to buy it for themselves.
So given the nature of current politics, what is there to do?
Well, waving a banner outside a shoe shop is going to do diddly squat, and as for singing at it… Unless you have some old testament Jericho horns working for you or a C.I.A issue siege busting p.a system, forget it. You have to get these bastards on their own turf. Turn up at their houses, appear at their restaurants, their hotel pools, their gala luncheons, their trade fairs. Buy shares in their companies, hold theirs AGMs to ransom. Hold a big bloody mirror up to these sods and show them up for the greedy self serving bastards that they are. Stop them sleeping soundly in their beds. Bury them in freedom for information request. But Marches? Unless your prime objective is to make yourself feel a bit better and try and make yourself look cool, forget it!.