Pseudo-protesters need to get real

Today's stunts are staged as an alternative to engaging in political debate.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Public protests seem to be always in the news these days, whether it be foxhunters invading parliament, estranged fathers scaling the walls of Buckingham Palace, or animal rights activists threatening those involved in animal research.

It may appear strange that there are so many high-level protests at a time when there is such a low level of interest in politics. But in fact they are two sides of the same coin. These are not really political protests as we might have known them in the past. They are more a cry of personal rage than an attempt to engage with the public.

‘We can bring this government down. [Rural Affairs Minister] Alun Michael already cannot leave London, Brighton is next and we will keep fighting.’ So said pro-hunting demonstrator Lucy Ferry, ex-wife of ex-pop star Bryan, after she was convicted of using her car to block Parliament Square during last week’s demonstrations against a ban on foxhunting. Her son, Otis, was one of the five hunt supporters who staged a protest inside the House of Commons on the same day.

These are fighting words and bold deeds. But what do they really mean? After all, the usual way one might set about trying to bring down a government is by building wider support for an opposition movement. By contrast, what people like the ‘very angry’ Lucy Ferry and her son seem to be doing is just lashing out, taking out their personal frustrations in public.

On spiked, we take a very different view of the aims of the pro-hunting campaign and those of the animal rights lobby: in short, we defend animal research and oppose a ban on hunting. And of course the hunters have not resorted to the sort of nihilistic violence of some animal rights nutters. But there is something similar about the sort of protests both groups tend to stage today. The pro-hunters’ attempts to scare the New Labour minister away from visiting the countryside, by threatening to dog him wherever he goes, look rather similar to the sort of headbanging tactics favoured by their arch enemies among the animal rights militants.

What both campaigns seem to be saying through such stunts is: ‘We don’t care what the rest of you think about bloodsports/medical research. All that matters is that we know it is right to save our sport/save the animals.’ What is missing from this self-righteous attitude is any serious attempt to intervene in a public debate, to convince other people of their case, and so influence the broader course of political events.

This reflects the degree to which the meaning of extra-parliamentary protests and direct action has changed in recent years. For most political movements in the past, a one-off protest or demonstration would be seen as a means to the end of getting their message across to a much bigger audience. Protests or direct action would certainly be used, but as a subsidiary element of a wider-ranging attempt to build support by winning arguments and altering public attitudes. When I was involved in left-wing protests in the 1980s, for example, our underlying aim was always to make propaganda – to get our ideas across – rather than simply to get our pictures into the media as an end in itself.

However, the art of protesting has been degraded by the likes of animal rights activists, environmentalists protesting against GM crops, and others who seem more interested in staging a stunt for the media than winning an argument with anybody else. As a result they have emptied protests of political meaning. Unfortunately their approach now seems to infect all manner of protesters, from estranged fathers to angry hunters to the anti-war movement.

In a recent column I referred to Daniel Boorstin’s seminal 1961 work The Image, in which he discussed the rise of the ‘pseudo-event’ in American politics – something that happens only so that it can be reported, like a press conference or an opinion poll. We now seem to be witnessing the rise of the pseudo-protest, which is staged solely in order to get on television and into the papers. The pictures can be striking, but precisely what political purpose such a protest might achieve is often far less clear. While everybody saw those hunt protesters pointing and shouting at some MPs in the Commons, nobody knows what they said. And it was somehow fitting that the audacious Batman protester from Fathers 4 Justice failed to put up his banner outside Buck House. Great costume, but what exactly did he want?

Pseudo-protests are both centred on, and sustained by, the media. They are stunts designed to make a personal statement, staged as an alternative, rather than an aid, to engaging in public political debate. Indeed the proponents of these sorts of protests often demonstrate a high degree of contempt for the public, whom they seem to believe have been ‘brainwashed’ against them by the same mass media that they now seem so desperate to impress.

That these pseudo-protests can make such a splash today is partly due to the disorientation of the government and the political class. In its desperation to find a cause that people might unite and fight around, New Labour is now often reduced to staging political stunts of its own – such as the petty ban on foxhunting, or the moral crusade against the tinpot British National Party. Protesters such as the pro-hunting lobby can exploit the isolation and incoherence of the political elite to make a PR impact. But the political incoherence of their own protests only confirms that they, too, are disengaged from any wider public debate. Indeed, I have heard some hunters revel in that isolation, describing themselves as an ‘indigenous minority community’ in modern Britain, or even as ‘British aborigines’.

Unfortunately for the proponents of pseudo-protests, getting a public order conviction and a good spread in the papers is not the same thing as winning the case for (or against) political change in the court of public opinion. With these sorts of tactics, Lucy Ferry has about as much chance of bringing down Tony Blair’s government as Bryan has of bringing down Britney Spears.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

Hunting clash: the illiberal in pursuit of the unsanitised, by Mick Hume

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Topics Politics


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