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Swellboy on… a new era of protests

Can Britain reclaim its place as a world leader in protests and unrest?

Swellboy on… a new era of protests

Image: Brijesh Patel

December 02 2010
Nick Foulkes

There was a time, not so long ago, when we in Britain were world leaders in the art of striking. When I was a child the readiness and the élan with which we withdrew our labour was recognised around the world. It was a time of giants, the union leaders bestrode the national stage as leading actors in the national drama, and so advanced were we in the art of industrial unrest that we were able to reduce the working week to three days. Think of it: a tremendous achievement. While the Americans had the three-martini lunch, we had the three-day week And yet, like our prominence in so many other fields, be it personal electronics (Sir Clive Sinclair was making radio kits before Bill Gates went to school), or regicide (we decapitated King Charles I almost a century and a half before the French got round to copying us), we have allowed other countries to upstage us.

In the 1970s sacks of rubbish decorated the noble boulevards and gracious squares of the capital of Empire, but now it is Naples that has taken the title of most rubbish-strewn city in Europe. And when it comes to strikes, I simply cannot remember the last time I experienced a power cut; instead we are relegated to watching the French as they assume the mantle that we once wore with such pride in the Heath and Wilson years.

However, with the Cleggeron coalition I sense that a new era of industrial unrest may be dawning. Take for instance the strike at the Beeb. I know it was a very middle-class sort of strike; it even had that sine qua non of the 1970s, a picket line – hardly the legendary Grunwick dispute once dubbed the Ascot of the left, but at least it is a start.

The government too is doing its part to help the country regain its prominence and even to challenge the traditional supremacy in certain types of protest enjoyed by other countries. It is a fact universally acknowledged that the French lead the world in student unrest: the événements of 1968 came within a whisker of toppling the regime of Charles de Gaulle – the man who famously asked how one could be “expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese”. However, by making all that noise about putting university education beyond the means of all but the children of the very rich (and presumably party apparatchiks), the Cleggeron administration has been seen to be doing its bit to raise Britain’s prestige in the international arena of public protest by provoking students who might otherwise be frittering away their time in lecture halls and libraries into taking to the streets.

Of course self-interest compels me to lament the fact that the sort of university education I enjoyed might well be beyond the means at the disposal of my own children; but I suppose that the creation of an under-educated generation is one of the sacrifices that must be made for the good of Britain’s international standing as a country to be reckoned with.

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