The return of the public?

The current austerity measures enacted in the UK has caused a revival of public activism after a long chapter of apathy.

Thousands of student protesters clashed with police in London in November over an increase in tuition fees [Getty]

The British had, until recently, a reputation for stolid indifference to the antics of our political masters.

If you wanted an activist citizenry, you had to cross the Channel. When the government bailed out the banks with generous infusions of public money, we stood by and watched. Though the police warned in February of last year that the country could look forward to a “summer of rage”, we failed to muster the anger and resentment expected of us.

The G20 demonstrations aside, a terrible recession combined with revelations of expense account padding in Parliament were not enough to bring us onto the streets. For a while it seemed that nothing would be. After years of being told that there was no alternative, perhaps we had started to believe it.

A little more than a month ago things began to change. Perhaps future historians will mark the beginning of the current disturbances to October 27, when some 70 people shut down a Vodafone store on London’s Oxford Street.

The company had settled a tax dispute with the government on extremely favourable terms and an organisation called UK Uncut decided to bring the matter of tax avoidance and tax evasion to a wider audience. Though, in the words of Laurie Penny the first protest was “organised only slightly more efficiently than a French farce”, what she described showed a very Gallic impatience with the politely ineffectual demonstrations that had marked our recent past.

In the weeks that followed mass protests by students against the government’s plans for higher education and an unprecedented series of occupations of university buildings took place against an increasing number of rapidly improvised demonstrations at Vodafone and Top Shop branches as well as high street banks.

Response to financial crisis

As the links between the UK Uncut protests and the student movement show, what we are seeing now is a belated response to the financial crisis. Politicians have so far failed to debate the options facing the country. The main parties fought an election earlier this year without serious discussion of the causes or consequences of the financial crisis.

Both the Labour Party and the Conservatives remained convinced that the state should model itself ever more closely on the private sector, even though the private sector had proved hopelessly unfit for any kind of public responsibility. In the Autumn of 2009 the Labour minister Peter Mandelson was promising the same ‘consumer revolution’ in higher education that so infuriated the students a year later.

Once in government, the Conservatives, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, signalled their desire to open up new opportunities for private companies to deliver public services at a profit. At the same time they have announced deep cuts in public expenditure. Today I am writing in the British Library, an institution that bestows all but incalculable public benefit.

Reductions in its budget will force it to shed 200 jobs in the next two to three years. This is only a tiny fraction of the jobs that will be lost in the coming months – the Office of Budget Responsibility estimates the total will be 330,000. Others have warned that it will be closer to a million.

The current government tells us that these and other cuts will somehow restore the confidence of private investors. In fact cutting public expenditure will increase unemployment at a time when the global economy is at best sluggish and Britain itself struggles with high levels of consumer and mortgage debt. The charity Shelter estimates that 3 per cent of British households are in arrears with their rent or their mortgage payments, twice as many as this time last year.

So it is hardly surprising that private investors aren’t investing in anything much, other than government bonds. To reduce public spending right now is at best an unprecedented gamble, at worst an act of vandalism by a Chancellor prone to confuse the interests of those who own the country with the interests of those who only live here.

Though the rich have profited disproportionately from financialisation and globalisation – the ram-raid and the getaway respectively of modern moneymaking – their vast fortunes, and the pressing need to tax them, have so far barely registered in mainstream political discussion.

Media failure

The media too have failed to offer anything like a serious examination of the issues. Most of us still have no real idea how the financial system works or how bankers make their annual bonuses.

The crisis came unexpectedly, shattered the credit-driven growth that had sustained the country since the mid-nineties, and left opinion-formers frantic to change the subject. Rather than admit that their previous beliefs about the economy were wrong, many have been all too happy to go along with the fantasy that the system is fundamentally sound and that recovery is just around the corner.

There is another way of dealing with the deficit, and with the wider crisis in the economy that caused it. The demonstrators and the occupiers are starting to piece it together. Rather than cut public spending and hope for the best, or expand borrowing indefinitely, the government could bring in higher taxes on the wealthy, including a levy on assets held offshore and onshore.

The money could be used to support public sector investment – sustaining current levels of employment and bringing new jobs and opportunities for education, as well as an improved physical and social infrastructure. Instead of cutting jobs at the British Library, the government should be building sister institutions in South London and the north of England, along with new public housing. It should be creating high-speed rail links, nature reserves and new universities.

The money raised could also bring the major banks into full public ownership and create a network of regional development banks with a mandate to support small and medium sized businesses. And once steps have finally been taken to address the economic emergency we can begin to debate how best to prevent a repeat of the last disastrous business cycle. Everything that has been obscure could be dragged into the light, from the organisation of the media to the structure of the enterprise.

When the major institutions of government and information fail to register the barest outlines of reality, when they fail to acknowledge the likely consequences of the policies currently being pursued, and when they ignore the existence of alternatives they gradually lose plausibility. In the face of this failure to inform the British are beginning to question the basis on which they are governed.

The long, drowsy years of apathy and inaction, debt and celebrity-worship are over. In Britain, as elsewhere, the public is back. 

Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two well-acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is also a regular contributor to The Guardian.

Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

Hind’s The Return of the Public? was first published by Verso, the UK publishing house.   

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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