Opinion: The morning after

I walked around the City of London this morning. Sunlight filtered through the banks and sandwich bars of the narrow streets, occasionally reaching the road, more often than not reflected from the acres of glass left gleaming and untroubled the the events of the previous days.

Around the Bank of England I searched for evidence of the violence and anarchy from the hard-core of the idiots who visited the G20 summit only to cause trouble. A rather lonely scrawl of “Fuck Capitalism” could be seen under the Bank’s museum entrance sign, and on the other side, more wittily someone had written “Because we’re evil” under a “No Bicycles” sign.

The small branch of RBS that had made the news as the nexus of ‘public’ anger had two windows boarded up and a rather cheerful offer of 3.5% interest on a cash ISA in the next.

Down Bishopgate where the peaceful Climate Camp had stretched for half a mile, before the Police decided to recycle their tents into environmentally unfriendly shopping bags, there was even less evidence that anything had happened.

The G20 had come, the G20 had gone, some people wanted a bit of a shout about it, and had achieved some commemorative mug shots of being oppressed to share with their mates on MySpace. Somebody accidentally died, and to everyone’s amazement it wasn’t Gordon Brown of embarrassment.

The concrete achievements of the G20 are hard to assess at this stage. Much of the money touted in the ‘historic’ $5 trillion package was from pre-announced national fiscal stimuli, much was optimistic, and much is likely to disappear after the cheerful world leaders go home to do hard sums with their Finance Ministers, several of whom will need to be coaxed down from the window ledges of their Treasuries.

What is clearly new though is the attitude and approach. The expansion of the G8 to the G20, including for the first time representatives of the serious emerging economies alongside the old world club ties, is a notable achievement for Gordon Brown and others. As is the sense of consensual collegiality, and genuine desire to provide solutions over the noise of national grand-standing that must be expected.

Whether that mood will actually prevent creeping protectionism or can survive success (there’s nothing like a crisis to bring out the desire to share the burden) remains to be seen. As is the effectiveness of new money for the IMF and whether or not we really can borrow, print, and tax our way out of a financial crisis caused by borrowing and taxing beyond our means.

For Labour it means a temporary respite from the slow motion car crash that is Gordon Brown’s leadership and personality. For the Conservatives it means many difficult questions about whether they can square their Euro-isolationism with a genuinely open internationalism as they so often claim. A UKIP-style Conservative government would have been laughed off the world-stage at this event.

For the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg has done his best to appear to have something useful to add to the media narrative by denying having a prissy fit about not getting to meet Obama. Meanwhile members of his Cabinet, with a good eye for where the cameras will be, have managed once again to promote the party as parochial by dropping themselves in the crowd shots of thugs, spaced-out hippies and wing-nuts, submitting beard-tugging comments about protester rights. A parochialism reflected in spades by the priorities discussed in balance of articles on the G20 on LDV I might add.

These global events are extremely difficult for the Party. We are clearly not major players on the world stage, and in the absence of a serious shot at UK government in the foreseeable future, no one much cares what we think about the deal. If we agree we’re irrelevant, if we disagree reasonably we’re boring, if we stand shoulder to shoulder with nutters we are exciting and unelectable.

But Nick Clegg’s agenda has been and remains about preparing this party for Government by focusing on a consistent narrative, campaigning and talking to the public rather than ourselves. He has attempted to fist-fuck the philosophical debate into something reassembling a clear agenda, and has taken broadly sensible voter-friendly positions on most issues, whilst retaining a campaigning edge in tone and style.

In that regard our G20 performance must be regarded as an abject failure. The Leader allowed his public school boy petulance to radiate and his colleagues have conveyed the impression that shutting down London, vandalism, and public nuisance are inviolable public rights, whilst going to work, using public transport, and offering facilities to discuss the financing of green business projects are irrelevant distractions.

I doubt there is much that could have been done to put the Liberal Democrats into the story on the Summit itself. A rally of international liberal groups, pamphlets, and position statements, would have been of academic interest and might have even happened without anyone noticing. (Note: Centre Forum put out a pamphlet, did you notice?)

On the public side though the better course of action would have been to stand up for Londoners. Hosting the G20 and the parasites who regard it as an excuse for a rave on the streets are enormous burdens, both financially and in respect of people and time. The event was largely about bolstering and distracting from Gordon Brown’s flagging domestic political career and we should put a price tag on that.

To the protesters we should have welcomed their stance where we agreed with them, asked them politely to host their events in one of London’s many large green spaces and show they really cared about the planet by replanting and cleaning up after themselves. We should have lobbied the BBC and others to give them proper coverage if they did that. We should welcome the arrest and fair sentencing of the anarchist minority who engaged in acts of violence against people and property.

We cannot though have on the one hand Vince Cable acting like the best Director the IMF never had, and Tom Brake like ACAS between yobs, extremists, and the Police.

If there was a clear party-wide plan for the Liberal Democrats for this event I will be surprised. If there wasn’t there should be in future, and at all times we must remember that we represent the public not just ideas and interest groups. If we can’t make ourselves relevant, no one else will.

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16 Comments

  • Wanders a wee bit but fair enough

  • Daniel Bowen 3rd Apr '09 - 12:29pm

    What a load of offensive drivel. Call the Quality Control police – this one should have been kettled!

  • Andrew Suffield 3rd Apr '09 - 12:48pm

    An impressive amount of writing to make no point I can discern.

  • Alix Mortimer 3rd Apr '09 - 12:55pm

    Colin Lloyd: is the right to peaceful protest of relevance to a liberal viewpoint or is it not?

  • “Meanwhile members of his Cabinet, with a good eye for where the cameras will be, have managed once again to promote the party as parochial by dropping themselves in the crowd shots of thugs, spaced-out hippies and wing-nuts, submitting beard-tugging comments about protester rights.”

    Nice job… ‘gathering evidence’ two days after the event. This arrogant dismissal is exactly why these people feel marginalised and are encouraged to take direct action. I wouldn’t say all of the protestors were particularly coherent, but they have a legimate concern that not enough is being done to combat climate change. There were plenty there who understand the science, yet don’t understand the slow moving edifice of mainstream political negotiation – having quite a good understanding of it myself I can hardly blame them.

    The police tactics risk alienating perfectly peaceful bystanders and onlookers caught up in the kettle. In fact they probably encouraged more people to join the demonstration than would have otherwise out of anger at their behaviour! – see video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t244-zEENSs

    Protests aside I noticed the G20 communique had little to say on climate change. It was much easier for them to work on getting people spending again than set out a comprehensive plan for how the current financial system will be coupled with environmental sustainability. I also remain unconvinced how much the rhetoric on tax havens will match the reality.

  • “This arrogant dismissal is exactly why these people feel marginalised and are encouraged to take direct action.”

    In doing so they simply marginalise themselves further. The fact is that mainstream society has no time for these social misfits and appealing to them will win no votes.

  • Labour said at the time that the public would never accept all this civil liberties nonsense & were solidly behind 42 days, ID cards, etc. Well look what happened to that.

    I carry no torch for the protestors, whom I view as incoherent & often having ties to radical organisations which left-liberals should condemn out of hand. (This of course was even more the case with the SWP/Respect brigade).

    But the fact is, supporting attacks on them is not only wrong in itself, but has failed to catch the mood of the public, who no longer ally themselves with the Blair-Brown order against its opponents. Even this time last year, they would have wanted to squash these tiresome protestors by any means the police considered necessary.

    But now the mounting anger at such business as the Fred Goodwin fiasco, not to mention New Labour’s relentless drive to take control over every jot & tittle of our lives, mean that the public are not a phalanx united behind authority.

    One thing I have learnt is that the silent majority, if it exists at all, generally stays silent. People who are more intelligent, thoughtful, active & well informed count for a lot more in terms of their influence. We are not some lumpen body, as those patronising commentors who talk about the “white working class” think we are/want us to be. & the genie will not be put back into the bottle, as much as right-whingers (who have put their true colours on display over the last few days) wish it could.

  • Colin Lloyd 3rd Apr '09 - 2:17pm

    Alix: “is the right to peaceful protest of relevance to a liberal viewpoint or is it not?”

    Yes, and there was a perfectly civil peaceful protest in Trafalgar Square that prevented no one else from going about their business. The same was not true of the other two major protests that were designed to shut down a part of London and cause criminal disruption and damage.

    AndyM11: “they have a legimate concern that not enough is being done to combat climate change.” Sure, and how exactly was that agenda advanced on April 1st? The publicity was on the thuggery no serious message was communicated.

    As to the video I watched that before I wrote this piece. The most interesting part of it is the first few seconds where you can clearly see people walking unmolested in and out of the camp and a small part of the half mile illegal blockade of the road created by the tents.

    You can later see the Police line advancing and protesters refusing to get out of the way despite plenty of room to do so behind them. If there’s evidence of a dangerous crush caused by the kettle it’s not on this video.

    Holding up your arms and chanting ‘peace not violence’ doesn’t mean the Police should refrain from moving you on from an illegal occupation of a public space.

    “Protests aside I noticed the G20 communique had little to say on climate change. ”

    Well maybe they thought about it and decided not to as it might be seen as giving in to street theatre… more seriously how do you think green R&D is going to be paid for if there is no confidence in banks, governments or markets. Restoring global stability and confidence is really important for tackling climate change. And to varying degrees the national fiscal stimulus programmes are designed to do that.

    Millennium: How about for the protesters should they not have respected: “I disagree with where you work but I defend your right to work there?”

  • If I were Colin Lloyd then getting the support of someone like Newmania might prompt me to re-examine my views.

  • Colin Lloyd 3rd Apr '09 - 10:34pm

    Tony you could always try and persuade me with an intelligent point instead.

  • Fair enough Colin: my succinct point was that if a head-banging Tory nutter like Newmania considered that my ideas were correct then I would find that a bit uncomfortable. For me this is one of those visceral issues where I am instinctively on the side of peaceful protest and opposed to what I see as heavy-handed state oppression. That doesn’t mean that I am against the police, or that I cannot understand how they as individuals might over-react in situations where they felt stressed and threatened. However, one of the main points of your article was to question the presence of LibDem MPs as observers on the demonstrations, and it baffles me that any liberal would see this as in any way reprehensible. The principle remains the same whether the demonstrators are anarchists or members of the BNP (though I am only human and would admit to partisanship in this dichotomy). Having spent 40 odd years going on demonstrations I cannot even remember them all, but the issues – anti war in Vietnam and Iraq, anti oppression in Chile, Greece etc., anti apartheid, in support of trades unions, against nuclear power, against road building, in favour of letting East African Asians come to this country, supporting better treatment of animals, and so on – are almost all ones where public opinion has moved in what I would consider a progressive direction in that time, and demonstrating about the issue was a small contribution towards changing that opinion. Sure, it is possible that people might have been inconvenienced by my presence on the street on occasion, but we believe in a plural world, don’t we? Sometimes that’s messy and outcomes can’t be weighed in a balance. A few thousand people being late for work on one day in their lives seems to me to be less important than a few thousand people expressing their concern about the world they will inherit, but I accept the validity of your disagreement with that.

  • Colin Lloyd 4th Apr '09 - 11:34am

    “it baffles me that any liberal would see this as in any way reprehensible”

    I don’t, I just see it as politically naive with little obvious benefit for the party, quite a lot of risk of harm by association, without much saving grace in respect of defending an important point of principle (see last points below).

    This was a rent-a-mob having a bit of a jolly in the sunshine given the excuse of the G20, not a serious protest at risk of oppression for their brave and difficult stand against an uncaring government.

    As someone has pointed out on another thread the public argument on whether climate change matters has largely been won, certainly amongst the G20, and this protest was specifically against whether or not one technical solution (emissions trading) to tackling climate change was better than another.

    So in that regard: “A few thousand people being late for work on one day in their lives seems to me to be less important than a few thousand people expressing their concern about the world they will inherit”

    should be correctly rephrased “tens of thousands of people being denied access to their places of work, millions of pounds of cost to taxpayers in policing, lost business, taxes, and clean up, seems to me to be less important than a few thousand people having a nice day out and expressing their concern that emissions trading is less effective at tackling climate change than micro-generation projects, carbon taxes, and banning use of fossil fuels.”

    Was that your point?

    “demonstrating about the issue was a small contribution towards changing that opinion”

    Sure, but are you sure about what you’re defending here. I support the right to protest, it’s an extension of the right of free speech. The issue with the climate camp was not that they were being denied a right to protest, but a right to one form of direct action (obstruction) as a method of protest.

    If you support that ‘right’ are you then arguing that any group with a cause should at any time have the right to shut down the public highway and block access to buildings for any length of time they like as long as they are passive rather than aggressive?

    If not, surely the only sensible legal position is that they should be subject to being moved on and arrest if they refuse? That will inevitably involve coercion, confrontation, and possible violence.

    Kettling is a pragmatic compromise in that regard. The Police have decided that mass containment is a better way of handling a mass nuisance than mass arrest. There are interesting civil liberties and legal questions about that decision, but the claim that kettling is a denial of the right to peaceful protest is just rubbish. It doesn’t seem to be used on genuinely peaceful protests that are doing nothing illegal. If it is, it shouldn’t be. It is used instead as a compromise alternative to mass arrest.

    So it is unclear to me what the Liberal Democrat MPs at the protest were actually advocating:

    1) Defending an unrestricted right to cause public nuisance as a method of political protest, whether or not peaceful alternatives exist
    2) Allow kettling as a compromise method of containing mass direct actions
    3) Taking a zero tolerance approach and engage in mass arrests.
    4) the right for Lib Dem MPs to make beard-tugging observations of concern without having anything useful to say about how to deal with the problem.
    5) something else

    But either way is the kettling-versus-mass arrest-versus-unrestricted yobbery argument, a matter largely of interest to activists in extremist groups and public order experts, really the debate the party wanted to be associated with at the G20? That was my point.

  • Daniel Bowen 10th Apr '09 - 10:20am

    So, “Colin”, was Ian Tomlinson a legitimate target in your view? Clearly.

    How stupid your sub-Thatcherite posturing looks now.

  • Colin Lloyd

    “The public argument on whether climate change matters has largely been won”

    Yes, there is a strong consensus that it is a hugely important problem that must be sorted out, by someone else, some time that is not now. Is that what you call “won”?

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