Demos in this country have changed a lot in the past few years. For one thing, they're bigger than they were in the mid-nineties. I think this has happened for several reasons. Firstly, demonstrating has become a more acceptable way of expressing one's opinion and as such it has moved into the mainstream. When my mates and me closed down a Shell garage in Cambridge in 1995, we took abuse from one particularly vitriolic petrol-needing driver who accused us all of being "a bunch of fucking crusties". The irony was we were all ivory-tower university students. I wonder if he ever figured that out.
The other thing is, the media is a *lot* more friendly to demos than they used to be. This is possibly because of the virtuous circle of more numbers=more mainstream=bigger issue=better coverage. But things have *really* changed. The only demo I ever went on that turned bad was the March for Social Justice in March(?)1997, when I was perturbed not only by the heavy-handedness of the police, but of the reporting afterwards, which portrayed the protesters as violent animals while failing to mention the systematic charging with horses and cracking open of heads on the part of the riot police. I remember helping one bloke whose head was streaming blood. He was a really gentle guy and stunned by what had happened to him. That kind of thing politicizes people, and it's noticeable that the police are rarely as heavy-handed these days - although possibly that is because the crowds just tend to be too damn big.
These days, we are sophisticated consumers. You can get all the violence you want just by choosing your protest correctly. Your best bet is MayDay. Or if you prefer peaceful protest, stick with the larger protests that attract a wider demographic. We really do have a great choice these days. I was delighted in February when my Dad went on the Stop the War march in Glasgow, because he'd never marched before and I knew he would get a charge out of the esprit de corps, the sense of fellowship that is unique to these events. But you know - when your Dad starts marching, you know it's gone mainstream.
Incidentally, I have demonstrated for a wide variety of causes in my time, from Student Loans to the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa to flying to Paris last year for the anti-Le Pen march. But the one thing I have never demonstrated about - and I expect I never will - is war. I simply cannot bring myself to protest against war (any war to date), or indeed any other cause that I do not fully understand. This is the crux of the matter: I always feel that war is such a complicated political issue, that I cannot possibly have all the relevant facts to hand, and therefore cannot make an informed choice. I have never sent my feet to march for a cause that I was not 100% behind. That is just my own personal preference; I have great respect for those who do protest for peace.
But I draw the line at calling politicians 'undemocratic' if they do not bow to the demands of demonstrators, and that is what I want to write about today. I keep seeing this over and over again, and it is starting to trouble me, because it seems to be seeping though into mainstream comment. When I was more active, I never expected politicians to do as we said; all I ever expected was to be a pressure group, and I think that in a democratic country, that is all anyone really has any right to expect. I suppose we have got to a stage now where demonstrating is so popular that it seems as if everyone is doing it, particularly within certain liberal circles like ours, where the anti-war sentiment is indeed the majority opinion and people who are not wholeheartedly so just keep quiet so as not to upset the applecart. But my point here is not to reopen the debate about the war (if you will please indulge me), but to think about how all this relates to democracy.
I see, for example, a spokesman for the STW coalition quoted in today's Metro thus:
"This phenomenal response shows the depth of feeling of the British public towards this visit".
Now, I don't like George W. Bush - his administration is indeed soaked in oil, and he is a right-wing bigot who has just shoved a retrograde abortion bill through Congress, but I don't really give a monkeys about him being here. He's the president of the United States, and it makes no difference to me how much pomp and circumstance attends his visit. I really don't care. I imagine there are thousands of others like me. Indeed, even if the top estimate is correct, there were only 200,000 people on the streets yesterday. My database at work shows a population of 59,540,000 for the UK - so only 0.34% of British people were on the march, top whack. It irks me that the organisers assume that this can be extrapolated to show wider unquestioning support for the demo. Do we really expect that politicians should immediately do policy U-turns just because 0.34% of the population is shouting loudly? That would not be democracy; that would be rule by a tiny minority, and yet protesters continue to castigate politicians for being 'undemocratic', which brings me to my next point.
In the same article, George Galloway is quoted as saying:
"We are speaking for the majority of the people in the world who want Bush out and who want Blair out".
What? How pompous! How can Mr. Galloway be expected to know what everyone in the world thinks? He doesn't even know what I think. And frankly, although I despise George W. Bush for his right-wing bigotry, I am not American, and therefore have no right whatsoever to say whether or how long he should remain in office. I know that US foreign policy affects us all, but even so, it would be undemocratic of me to expect to have a say in who the president of the US was. Of course, this is one reason why people demonstrate against him: we have no control over the selection process, so all anyone can do is take to the streets. Fair enough. But the dodgy pseudosyllogistic move from 'dodgy vote-counting in Florida' to 'not a fairly elected president' to 'not a democratically elected president' to 'the US is an undemocratic country' to 'the US is a capitalist dictatorship, and Dubya is a despot' seems very easily made by quite a few people, and that worries me, because I think the underlying feelings are starting to influence mainstream liberal opinion, and I think that it is unhelpful.
The 'undemocratic' charge also makes foreign policy complicated. Given the chaos in Iraq at the moment, quite clearly there needs to be some sort of working structure set up there before the US/UK/other western forces pull out, to try to stave off a nasty civil war. It may be impossible, of course, but it would be deeply unethical not to try. But of course, there are anti-US demonstrations going on there, which means that many people who are anti-war in this country can point to Iraqis demonstrating against the US as if it is majority Iraqi opinion. But the truth is - how can we possibly know? I have seen plenty of alternative reports from journalists interviewing Iraqis who want the foreign soldiers to stay as long as possible. I ask again - how can we possibly know what majority opinion is in Iraq? Is it even relevant at this stage? This brings me back to one of my earlier points, which is that my conscience does not permit me to march for things I do not support 100%.
I suppose what I am trying to say with this rantette is that I wish demonstrators would stop talking about how politicians are undemocratic in not doing what the protesters want. Sometimes I think that some of the demonstrators are pretty undemocratic-minded themselves, given the assumptions they make. Demonstrating, for me, is about raising the profile of what I believe in - a political pressure. I believe it has a very important role in democracy because the main flaw in democracy is the difficulty of protecting minority rights. But majority rule is the foundation of democracy and as a political ideology, it may be shite, but it's the best there is.