We protest! But is the UK government bothered?

They came from as far afield as Cornwall and Inverness, including mother and toddler groups and violent anarchists. But do demonstrations make a difference?

‘For 24 hours,’ said the man with the placard, ‘Trafalgar Square will become like Cairo’s Tahrir Square!’

This was fighting talk from one of the many thousands of protesters who flooded London on Saturday – the largest demonstration in the UK since the march against the Iraq war in 2003.

But while the Egyptian rallies brought down an autocrat, some say these protests against government cuts are a waste of time. ‘What did it achieve?’ asked one blogger. ‘Absolutely nothing! The government’s not changing course, and why would it?’

Anti-capitalist anarchists terrorising Oxford Street may grab most of the headlines. About 300 of them attacked shops, banks and the police with paint and ammonia-filled light bulbs.

But the majority of marchers were different – older people with families, who simply wanted to make their voices heard.

‘I don’t suppose it will have much effect, but you can’t just sit down and moan,’ said Ron Whittle who came down for the day from Blackburn in Lancashire.

And retired care worker Joy Sexton, aged 79 felt the same: ‘Lots of people where I live are losing their jobs and I wanted to show my support.’ Demonstrators – advised by the organisers ‘to wear sensible shoes and enjoy’ – came from all sections of society including teachers, nurses, firefighters, public sector workers, students, pensioners, doctors and even police groups.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, spoke for many in the crowd in Hyde Park when he declared: ‘David Cameron, you wanted to create the Big Society – this is the Big Society. The Big Society united against what your government is doing to our country.’

Protest marches like this tend to be a reaction to decisions already taken and which are unlikely to be reversed. So can they ever be more than a brief ‘voice of discontent’?

But with unemployment rising and public sector pay frozen, the government knows that one protester on the coach from Blackburn could represent hundreds of thousands of votes at the next election. And that’s more worrying.

No alternative? Large protests frighten autocrats. Denied a vote, public demonstration is the only path to change for the people.

In democracies, however, it’s elections that change governments, not rallies. And with four more years in power, Prime Minister David Cameron can ignore people with placards.

While people believe the government’s line that ‘there is no alternative’ – as post-Budget polls suggest they do – then the coalition is safe.

You Decide

  1. This was a demonstration against government cuts to public services. What issues would you protest about?
  2. 'In democracies, you should protest at the ballot box – not on the street.' Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Think of a cause you care about – and then come up with some good slogans to write on placards/T-shirts.
  2. Research a march that has taken place in the UK. Perhaps the Jarrow march (1936), the protests against the poll tax (1990) or the march against war in Iraq (2003). And then answer the question: 'What did it achieve?'

Some People Say...

“Protests cost a lot and achieve nothing.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So how many were there?
Estimates range from 'over 250,000' (The BBC and Police) to '500,000' ('The Independent')
Do protests ever change anything in the UK?
They don't have a good record. Perhaps the most famous was the Jarrow march of 1936, against poverty in the England's North-East. 200 locals marched 300 miles to London, but little was done for them. They were just each given £1 for the train fare back home.
And police were protesting?
Yes, 4500 of them were looking after the event, but a significant number of off-duty officers were on the march, protesting against police cuts.
And some good slogans?
I liked the T-shirt which said, 'Does my society look big in this?' And for those who couldn't get to London, it was the first 'armchair army' virtual march – you could protest on Facebook. Less tiring.

Subjects

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