Rise like lions after slumberIn unvanquishable number.Shake your chains to earth like dew.Which in sleep has fallen on you.Ye are many – they are few.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley
These days, the stirring lines of Percy Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy” may seem unattainable. I don’t think so. Shelley was both a Romantic and political truth-teller. His words resonate now because only one political course is left to those who are disenfranchised and whose ruin is announced on a government spread sheet.
Born of the “never again” spirit of 1945, social democracy in Britain has surrendered to an extreme political cult of money worship. This reached its apogee when £1 trillion of public money was handed unconditionally to corrupt banks by a Labour government whose leader, Gordon Brown, had previously described “financiers” as the nation’s “great example” and his personal “inspiration”.
This is not to say Parliamentary politics is meaningless. They have one meaning now: the replacement of democracy by a business plan for every human activity, every dream, every decency, every hope, every child born. The old myths of British rectitude, imperial in origin, provided false comfort while the Blair gang, assisted by venal MPs, finished Thatcher’s work and built the foundation of the present “coalition”.
This is led by a former PR man for an asset stripper and by a bagman who will inherit his knighthood and the tax-avoided fortune of his father, the 17th Baronet of Ballentaylor. David Cameron and George Osborne are essentially fossilised spivs who, in colonial times, would have been sent by their daddies to claim foreign terrain and plunder.
Today, they are claiming 21st century Britain and imposing their vicious, antique ideology, albeit served as economic snake oil. Their designs have nothing to do with a “deficit crisis”. A deficit of 10 per cent is not remotely a crisis. When Britain was officially bankrupt at the end of the second world war, the government built its greatest public institutions, such as the National Health Service and the great arts edifices of London’s South Bank.
There is no economic rationale for the assault described cravenly by the BBC as a “public spending review”. The debt is exclusively the responsibility of those who incurred it, the super-rich and the gamblers. However, that’s beside the point. What is happening in Britain is the seizure of an opportunity to destroy the tenuous humanity of the modern state. It is a coup, a “shock doctrine” as applied to Pinochet’s Chile and Yeltsin’s Russia.
In Britain, there is no need for tanks in the streets. In its managerial indifference to the freedoms it is said to hold dear, bourgeois Britain has allowed parliament to create a surveillance state with 3,000 new criminal offences and laws: more than for the whole of the previous century. Powers of arrest and detention have never been greater. The police have the impunity to kill; asylum seekers can be “restrained” to death on commercial flights and should fellow passengers object, anti-terrorism laws will deal with them. Abroad, British militarism colludes with torturers and death squads.
The playwright Athol Fugard is right. With Harold Pinter gone, no acclaimed writer or artist dare depart from their well remunerated vanity. With so much in need of saying, they have nothing to say. Liberalism, the vainest ideology, has hauled up its ladder. The chief opportunist, Nick Clegg, leader of the minority Liberal Democrats, gave no electoral hint of his odious faction’s compliance with the dismantling of much of British post-war society.
The theft of £83bn in jobs and services matches almost exactly the amount of tax legally avoided by piratical corporations like Rupert Murdoch’s. Without fanfare, the super-rich have been assured they can dodge £40bn in tax payments in the secrecy of Swiss banks. The day this was sewn up, Osborne attacked those who “cheat” the welfare system. He omitted the real amount lost, a minuscule £0.5bn, and that £10.5bn in benefit payments were not claimed at all. The Labour Party is his silent partner.
The propaganda arm in the press and broadcasting dutifully presents this as unfortunate but necessary. Mark how the fire-fighters’ action is “covered”. On Channel 4 News, following an item that portrayed modest, courageous public servants as basically reckless, the presenter Jon Snow demanded that the leaders of the London Fire Authority and the Fire Brigades Union go straight from the studio and “mediate” now, this minute. “I’ll get the taxis!” he declared. Forget the thousands of jobs that are to be eliminated from the fire service and the public danger beyond Bonfire Night. Knock their jolly heads together. “Good stuff!” said the presenter.
Ken Loach’s 1980s documentary series, Questions of Leadership, opens with a sequence of earnest young trade unionists on platforms, exhorting the masses. They are then shown older, florid, self-satisfied and finally adorned in the ermine of the House of Lords. Once, at a Durham Miners’ Gala, I asked Tony Woodley, now the joint general secretary of Unite, “Isn’t the problem the clockwork collaboration of the union leadership?” He almost agreed, implying that the rise of bloods like himself would change that. The British Airways’ cabin crew strike, over which Woodley presides, is said to have made gains. Has it? And why haven’t the British unions risen as one against totalitarian laws that place free trade unionism in a vice?
The BA workers, the fire-fighters, the council workers, the post office workers, the NHS workers, the London Underground staff, the teachers, the lecturers, the students can more than match the French if they are resolute and imaginative, forging, with the wider social justice movement, potentially the greatest popular resistance ever. Look at the web; and listen to the public’s support at fire stations. There is no other way now. Direct action. Civil disobedience. Unerring. Read Shelley and do it.