Wednesday 2 November 2011

Democracy or protest?

For the last couple of days, there have been several hundred people camping outside St Paul's in London. They have made life very difficult for the Church of England which is not quite sure whether it should support them or seek an eviction order to have them removed from the steps of the Cathedral. 
Yesterday, the Church decided to cave in and join the protesters. It withdrew its support for an eviction notice that was sought by the Corporation of London and subsequently, the Corporation ditched the idea too. This means the camp is to stay for the foreseeable future. 
I fully support the right to protest. After all, I grew up in a country that did not allow these sort of demonstrations. So it is only right and proper that we should carefully balance the rights of protesters with public order issues and, if in doubt come down on the side of demonstrators who exercise their freedom to public assembly and protest. 
Today, however, the Archbishop of Canterbury did something that went beyond tolerating the protesters outside the Cathedral. He said he supported the so-called 'Robin Hood' tax, a tax that was mooted by the German and French government to be levied on every transaction taking place on the stock exchange. 
This strikes me as odd in several ways. Remember the outcry in the media and from left-leaning commentators when the government introduced some bills that were not in the party election manifestos? The fundamentals of democracy were at stake we were told. The government had no mandate to introduce these bills because the electorate had not voted on them in May 2010. 
Now, here is what puzzles me with the Archbishop's suggestion. He says that we should listen to the campaigners outside St Paul's. Yet I do not remember voting for them, nor do I think they have stood for elections and have obtained a mandate from the British electorate. As many commentators on the left of the political spectrum correctly remarked months ago: This is a question that goes to the heart of British democracy. Who has a mandate to make policy? 
The Occupy London camp claims that it speaks for everyone but the 1% super rich in the country. How do they know? So far, they have not produced a list of their demands. I am at a loss of whether or not they even have my support since I do not know what they stand for. Yet, they seem to think that they have 99% support in society, a claim by the way that is eerily reminiscent of the election results of the country in which I grew up where people could NOT camp outside churches. 
So, why should government listen to a few hundred people camped out on the pavement in London? The simple answer is: it should not. The right to protest is a right to make your voice heard. This is not the same as the right to make decisions on behalf of an elected government. 
The Occupy London protest makes an important contribution to the public debate, yet it should stop claiming that it represents 99% of the British people. Chances are it does nothing of this sort, and even if its (yet unknown) demands chime with the sentiments of the majority of people in this country, the protesters have no mandate to govern. Mandates have to be obtained in democratic elections. If we fiddle with this principle, we may as well outsource policy making to Speaker's Corner and every fruitcake can have a go. 


  1. You are making some very valid points in your post, although I would argue a few things: firstly, the demand of a manifesto on their part, secondly the assumption that they are making a political statement, thirdly that they are - or they're not - speaking on behalf of the 99%.

    There is a rather interesting article from Al Jazeera English re the first and third points above - and there were other (hundreds) articles of this nature in the past month in various (inter)national newspapers but this one seems to summarise the main points rather well:

    Above all, we need to bear in mind that the Occupy protests are a movement not a party, an outcry of a number of people that represents the average Jo and the average Jane, and that the fact that it may or may not speak on behalf of the 99% in its entirety is not so relevant. Even speaking on behalf of 50% of the population makes it important enough to listen to an outcry.

    What is relevant, I believe, is the fact that all these protests springing up around the world (Occupy Protests, Chiliean Education Protest, Spanish Indignados, Greek protests, Italian Purple protest etc etc) have one thing in common: they highlight in one way or another our FAILED systems.

    Of course, we cannot just wipe everything out and start from scratch but there must be a sign(s) that whatever is coming next HAS to be fundamentally different from whatever we had so far. It takes time, it takes the right people, the right resources etc but people all over the world want to see these signs.

  2. Well, I certainly agree that we need to listen and listen carefully! They are making (some) important points about the financial system and the role rewards are playing in the financial system.

    However, you cannot talk about 'system failure' and not say something about what exactly failed. What has failed here? Democracy? Certainly not otherwise they wouldnt be out demonstrating! They would be shot at like in Syria. The financial system? Well, parts of it certainly did not serve us well but it has little to do with being capitalist. It has something to do with being badly regulated. Capitalism is working very well in China and other countries where there are enormous growth figures which lifts millions of people out of poverty. Do we need to regulate it better? YES! Do we need to find a better balance between financial sector and manufacturing in this country? Certainly! How do we get there? By analysing carefully what went wrong.
    I think we are suffering a bit from selective amnesia: We have all benefitted from the financial system while it was still 'functioning'. We all wanted our pension pots to grow and have the biggest savings rates. Now we blame the bankers... Is that really fair?