Tony Benn said yesterday that almost all progress starts on the
streets, and that the people at the top are usually the last to get the
Tony and I disagree about a few things, not least on the neccessity of
changes that had to be made to the Labour Party, to escape the futility of
opposition. But I like and respect him, even if I continue to believe if
the Bennite left had taken over the Labour Party, we would have been finished
as a serious political force.
So as I zipped around Paris doing interviews to
promote my novel, and tried to keep abreast of events in London since I kept
being asked about them, I thought about what he said. There can be few better
places than Paris to do so. Come the Revolution and all that …
certainly thousands of people out on the streets of London, and plenty of
causes for which support and anger were being expressed – anti-banks,
anti-poverty, anti-globalisation, anti-capitalism, anti-global warming,
anti-war general, anti-war specific, anti-the UK government, anti-other
governments, anti-all governments.
Put more positively, pro-fairness,
pro-social justice, pro-jobs, pro-a radical reordering of the finances and
power structures of the world. And of course, whatever the certainty with which
Tony expresses his view, none of us know for sure what difference the protests
make. That goes both for the peaceful protests and those which involved
violence and damage to buildings and so took most of the media coverage
throughout the day.
First question – would the leaders be aware of the
scale and nature of the protests? Yes. They will all be aware both via
briefings from their own political and security teams and from occasional
snatches of TV they might catch between meetings.
Second question – will it
have any impact in the short term i.e. for the decisions they are due to take as
part of the formal G20 deliberations? Almost certainy not. The leaders are
already well aware of the anger felt globally at what has happened in the
economy, and know a lot of that anger has crystallised around the banks.
whilst the leaders have considerable room for manoeuvre in negotiation, beyond
the positions scoped out by their sherpas, I am not persuaded by the idea that
demos outside the discussions – peaceful or violent – will be among the factors
It is when you focus on the longer-term that you have to wonder
whether Tony may have a point. Again, I am not as sure as he is. But I do
believe that sometimes change can come through what may seem a strange coalition
– because it will include leaders, among them some of those around the Summit
I can remember once a meeting the other TB (Tony Blair) had with
musicians Bono and Bob Geldof at the time of a G7 summit when the British
government was trying to persuade other governments to take a greater interest
in Africa and in particular the issue of debt relief. Tony – and he did the
same around the time of the Jubilee 2000 campaign – was effectively saying the
British welcomed pressure, because it strengthened our hands in
negotiations with others. That was a specific cause and a specific campaign
that had considerable success.
The problem strategically with the current
protests is the lack of clarity about objectives, other than the right to
express anger, while the violence allows those who don’t want to hear to
dismiss any arguments against a pre-fixed point of view. When all is said and
done, all but hardcore anarchists understand that countries require
governments, that democracy is the best system yet invented and that while no
democratic system is perfect, governments duly elected have to be able to make
How many of yesterday’s peaceful protesters, whilst angry
at one or all of the issues being addressed, were nonetheless joyous when
Barack Obama became President? A lot, I imagine. Why? Because they felt they
could invest hope in him to take the right decisions for the future. Well today
he is one of twenty leaders who have to address a genuine global crisis. He did
not pick the team he is working with – the other leaders – but an important
team is what they now are. Making sure that leaders are aware of public feeling
is an important part of the process.
Having recognised voices outside of
political leadership – and in the media age that tends to mean celebrities as
well as churches, charities, think tanks and pressure groups – is also
important. But whether people like it or not ultimately the big decisions
leading to major change have to be taken and then implemented by politicians.
Tony Benn spoke of the movement for women’s votes, peace in Northern Ireland
and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He is right that protest
played a part in all of them. But it is way too romantic to put it all down to
that. And I’m not sure yesterday’s protests will go down in history in quite
the same way. The decisions taken today might, or they might at least lead to
processes that will.
Ps, talking of Bono, later on I’ll be putting up on the vlog an interview
I did with him a few years back.