Action and Reaction

Britain's cultural history is one of extreme regional and personal freedom, by comparison with any other stable polity our age. Mind you, there really aren't any of those; the accidents of geography, geology and invasion pushed us into a quasi-capitalist and then an industrial capitalist phase before anyone else. Our system of governance has existed in a stable and self-modifying form since 1688, and the Enlightenment philosophies which have informed the modernist perspective on everything from personal ethics to international law were in large part conceived and distributed from here.

There was no Golden Age of British personal freedom. What there was throughout much of medieval and Early Modern history was a kind of instinctive federalist mind-set. We organised well and early, and we overcame the communications barrier by a very strong pattern of local governance coupled to a national court of appeal: Henry II's creation of the King's Bench, to which any free subject could appeal against his master. In practice it took us til the 20th Century to even remotely implement that model, but along the way we learned a hell of a lot about how you avoid blood in the streets and guillotines in Piccadilly. In charting the manner of Britain's attitude to public dissent, one cannot over-estimate the spectre of the Jacobins.

Throughout this narrative we have swung between poles of reaction and progression; but the government had always the shadow of the guillotine in its mind to make it remember what happens when you ignore your people too long. It might take decades but a government would arrive who saw compromise as better than violence. This narrative is considerably modified by the Wars. The massive population loss after the Great War, which tilted us off the industrial plateau, and the mass destruction of our industrial base which accelerated that curve, were accompanied by a comprehensive militarisation of civilian life which governed public order until the social revolution of the 60s. The Peace, Love and Understanding attitude of the Aldermaston marchers and the anti-war protests helped sustain an attitude of permissible dissent; but there were still flashpoints, often in Trafalgar Square and often caused by radical elements high-jacking a peaceful protest. Sound familiar? In parallel, the labour movement which dominated political protest in planned economies of the 60s and 70s gave a large percentage of Britons a personal respect for the act of protest.

That all changed in 1983. Scargill massively underestimated Thatcher's willingness to try direct, violent, fully-armed confrontation. Scargill was a rabble-rousing genius but a political idiot; his ideological blindness drove him beyond practical protest and into the arms of a delighted reactionary government. Thatcher had the cash to outface the miners: North Sea oil and gas hedged her bets and the Falklands War provided the political capital required. Because Scargill was asking for the wrong things, she was able to confront organised dissent from the highest moral ground any government has had since the War. And because most of the unions knew Scargill was doing it wrong, he didn't have the support necessary to bring the country to a standstill: which he did have in '79.

Thatcher proved that she could send in paramilitary forces to violently suppress dissent and get away with it, so long as the lower classes were divided in their interests. That discovery informed her economic, social and educational policies for the rest of the decade, hardening her shell of moral certainty into a crusading attitude which eventually brought her down over the Poll Tax. She tested the waters in 1984 by organising a terrorist raid on the travellers, hippies, single mothers and bikers who were marching to the two-decade old Stonhenge Free Festival. Most of the country just didn't care

From there on the history of British public-order policing has followed a solid reactionary spiral under one further Conservative Prime Minister and then two Labour ones. This trend is synergistic with the immense power-grab launched from Westminster in the 80s, which finally ended our thousand-year culture of strong local government. As money moved to Westminster, so power followed it. It had been proved that with sufficient media savvy and the Murdoch empire on your side, you could violently suppress anyone you wanted to.

After Thatcher beat Scargill and just not enough people cared, after the educational policy shifts and the start of dismantling the Welfare State in the 80s, the Poll Tax riots were the very last gasp of protest as a check and balance against the power of the state. Thatcher had proved you could win with violence in British politics, just so long as the rabble were divided and factionalised. The governments of the 90s started ignoring the opinions of the nation wholesale. Most of Britain thought Back to Basics was risible; relatively few people were thinking what they were thinking. Labour looked like they offered a return to consensus governance; John Smith was offering a referendum on electoral reform, and even the Liberal Democrats were finally beginning to get some traction. Then the Labour coup saw the party swung to the right around the fulcrum of Blair and Brown until by 2003 they felt safe to ignore the single largest demonstration of popular dissent Britain has ever seen in order to invade Iraq on the word of the monkey in the White House.

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Gleneagles was another turning point, specifically in the policing of dissent. They got away with starting a riot, blaming it on the Black Gang (who were trying, but failing, to do the same) and then hammering the hell out of everything that moved. No-one seemed to care. This year, they had another chance to punish dissent, and they set out with the same policy as they'd used for twenty-six years: contain, assault, punish. Destroy any evidence, intimidate any witnesses, control the press. But now something has changed.

There were rumblings of this change with the Jean Charles de Menezes case. There were rumblings of it after the right wing discovered that being rich and from the country was no protection against police violence. But no-one outside the internet generation saw this coming. The forces of reaction didn't recognise the real significance of the camera-phone revolution, the advent of mass-market access to mobile internet, and the development of the political blogosphere. Citizen Journalism is a major problem for reactionaries. The only reason the policies I have outlined here have worked these last two decades is extraordinary success in policing the media and in destroying evidence. You just made sure everyone with a press-pass was out of the area before the final assault (sound familiar?) You just made sure the satellite TV crew were embedded with you, so you could control precisely what they see. You just made sure that anyone with a camera got arrested; doesn't matter what Section you quote, the stupid bastards won't know the difference and you can erase their memory stick.

You can't get all the cameras now; too many of us have the technology, the will and the social networks to get the word out around, through and over their whitewashed walls. To catch Nixon took two dedicated men, two years and over fifty thousand dollars worth of corporate backing; today it took one organised movement which put its legal observer team together in advance, a few blogs, some video snap-shots and one honest newspaper.