What about a Rally For Economic Growth?
The UK economy is in big trouble, but Saturday's pro-cuts demo in London largely missed the point.
Saturday’s Rally Against Debt, a ‘counterbalance’ to the large but incoherent and instantly forgettable TUC anti-cuts march held in London earlier this year, initially showed some promise as a vehicle for highlighting the seriousness of the UK’s economic crisis and the importance of taking positive action. But organisational oversights and a failure to make the case for economic growth made the protesters easy targets for left-wing sneering. Worst of all, with their talk of saving our children from future disaster, the attendees ended up sounding a bit like climate-change protesters.
By denying that it was the UK equivalent of the Tea Party on its website, organisers of the Rally Against Debt were inevitably going to draw comparisons with the American protest movement. And, from the Daily Mail to the Guardian, national media did indeed speculate as to whether the organisation’s inaugural demonstration would see the birth of a Tea Party-style popular protest against big government and excessive state expenditure.
The Rally Against Debt was initiated by two young UK Independence Party (UKIP) supporters and quickly gained the support of many high-profile bloggers on the right, including Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes), Toby Young and Mark Wallace alongside the libertarian Freedom Association and the Taxpayers’ Alliance, which did much of the organisation.
For the first few days, the number of people on Facebook saying that they were attending the event rocketed, before reaching a plateau at around 1,500 individuals, which over the next month refused to budge much despite organisers’ last-minute pleas ‘for gods sake [sic] get the events page to 2,000’. Unsurprisingly, even these relatively low virtual figures failed to translate into attendees and fewer than 500 people attended the rally outside the Houses of Parliament last Saturday.
The left – initially concerned enough about reports of a pro-cuts backlash to organise a ‘Rally Against the Rally Against Debt’ and a ‘Resist the Cuts counter-demonstration’ before thinking better of it – were gleeful at reports about the meagre turnout, using their spiritual home – Twitter – to jeer at them on the #rallyagainstdebt and specially created #cuntsforcuts hashtags.
Indeed, the critics of the Rally Against Debt have probably done more to sustain interest in it than the organisers. ‘#rallyagainstdebt proving less popular than a wet fart in your porridge’ tweeted one, with another joking ‘#rallyagainstdebt looks like it’s going to be the only Tea Party not big enough for a kettle.’ Another Twitter user drew comparisons with the TUC demo: ‘500,000 march against cuts … whilst 350 support it… Sounds like democracy has spoken’. (This makes the false assumption that demonstrations are just a numbers game. It ignores the fact that the Rally Against Debt gained much more press coverage and generated more discussion than many demos 20 times the size.) Elsewhere, a number of Twitterers made predictable jokes about protesters unable to organise a piss-up in a brewery. As one put it, ‘think it shows a certain lack of understanding of much of the UK to organise a rally on the day of the FA Cup final #rallyagainstdebt’.
On this, the critics have a point: FA Cup final day is almost up there with Christmas in terms of picking a bad day to organise a protest. And organisers’ reliance on social media and blogs in the right-wing media as mobilisation techniques woefully underestimated the amount of effort it takes to get people to turn up. Indeed one of the most prominent supporters of the protest, Free Schools advocate and author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Toby Young, demonstrated his talent for losing friends and alienating people by not being committed enough to even turn up himself. He instead chose to take his kids to a Pirates exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, leading to a – justifiable – feeding frenzy on Twitter: ‘Toby Young snubs pro-cuts rally for free museum tickets funded by the taxpayer!’
Many of the speakers who actually turned up to the rally also seemed intent on preaching to the converted, rather than trying to garner public support. Filmmaker Martin Durkin seemed oblivious to how cold and insensitive he sounded when telling the crowd: ‘They say, “what will we do if we cut back: people will lose their jobs!” That’s the point! We need to let them lose their jobs!’
Banners asking ‘where were the cuts we were promised?’, telling people to ‘read Ayn Rand’ and patronising them by asking ‘UK: 5 trillion in debt. Do you even know how many [zeros] that is?’ will do little to resonate with the broader public.
But while those rallying against debt might be out of step with public opinion, they have at least recognised that Britain is facing a profound economic crisis that can’t be resolved by a bit of populist banker bashing. While tiny by comparison with the TUC event, the Rally Against Debt protesters are right that the national debt must be tackled at some point. Even the current plans for government cuts merely envisage state debt rising more slowly in the future. There is no plan, as yet, to reach a point where taxation exceeds expenditure and government liabilities start to fall.
Unfortunately, the Rally Against Debt was solely obsessed with one side of the equation – cutting expenditure. With the exception of Bill Cash MP leading a fleeting chant of ‘we want growth’, arguments for the importance of economic growth were noticeable by their widespread absence. Absent, too, was a recognition of the crucial role of the state in making major capital investments that are beyond the means of many individuals companies, be it in nuclear power, road building or construction. Such state investment can create a suitable environment for private-sector wealth creation.
Instead of engaging in a political debate about what aspects of state expenditure were unproductive or undesirable, many of the protesters seemed to believe that state expenditure was bad per se, and growth would only follow if expenditure was cut. Indeed, although the government could arguably be less timid about its plans for cuts, as James Woudhuysen has pointed out previously on spiked, the government’s plans to encourage economic growth are practically non-existent.
The emphasis on cutting expenditure, rather than creating wealth – coupled with banners calling for ‘sustainable spending’ and arguments that the government is ‘stealing from our kids’ – sometimes made it feel eerily like you were on a Campaign Against Climate Change demo. Martin Durkin praised the graphs on the banners, joking that there was a ‘better class of protester on our hands here’ oblivious to the fact that graphs are de rigeur on protests by smug greens. Mark Littlewood, director of the Institute for Economic Affairs, even argued, ‘if you are really worried about climate change, you should be totally apoplectic about the state of public finances that we’re leaving our children and grandchildren’.
Such age-of-austerity, self-loathing rhetoric about cutting back on our ‘shopaholic ways’ for the sake of the grandkids is actually quite a mainstream position. In arguing for cuts over growth, some protesters sounded dangerously like they have internalised the language of what economist Daniel Ben-Ami terms ‘growth scepticism’. However, it’s likely that many on the Rally Against Debt – who, with their penchant for chinos and professed love of Fortnum and Masons, don’t seem to find material goods an anathema – have just borrowed this rhetoric in order to try to resonate with the public. If so, this shows a failure to understand just how deeply unpopular such arguments are: guilt-tripping people into masochistically accepting austerity is much less inspiring than arguing for the possibility of greater prosperity for all.
While many on the left seem to prefer to keep their heads in the sand, believing the UK economy can continue to be propped up by an ever-growing mountain of debt, the 350 protesters at the Rally Against Debt were much more aware of the serious problems the UK economy faces and the action that needs to be taken. However, simply making a virtue out of cutting won’t cut it: it will neither resolve the economic crisis nor inspire a popular movement. What is urgently needed is a mature political discussion about bringing state expenditure back into line with the country’s capacity to generate wealth. On the one hand, it means making some tough choices about what our priorities really are; on the other hand, we should be asking how the state can help aid productive economic growth.
Next time, instead of rallying against debt, how about a Rally For Growth? That could be a demonstration worth missing the cup final for.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.