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Of Benn and Bono

Posted on 2 April 2009 | 8:04am

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 …

There were
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
swaying them.

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
table today.

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
difficult decisions.

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.

  • Duncan

    I take your point Alistair, but I think Tony makes his not through romanticism but realism: that despite 50 years in Parliament, he couldn’t make the changes he wanted to make without popular and public protest. Not because he didn’t have power – he was a Cabinet Minister for many years – but because politicians are very hamstrung by other aspects of the system, and can do nothing alone. So it wasn’t either TB who got rid of the poll tax, it was people rioting on the streets. The Strangeways riots brought prison reforms. I’m not advocating rioting – it is hugely unfortunate that governments – historically – respond much more to violent protest than to peaceful.

    Votes for women were won by protest. Of course there were political leaders who supported those protests, but they were few and far between and would have achieved nothing without the protests. The anti-apartheid movement too. Another of Tony’s favourite sayings is that when you first suggest a radical idea you’re called ‘mad’, then ‘dangerous’ and then everybody claims to have come up with the idea before you did. And when the likes of Ken Livingstone were saying that the only way to bring peace to Northern Ireland was to include Sinn Fein in political talks back in the 80s, there were plenty who called him mad and dangerous. Of course, by the time it is clear that a change will happen, almost every political leader you can find is fully on board. I’m not sure you could say the same earlier in these processes.

    But I won’t say too much about Northern Ireland because – alongside comprehensive education – it’s probably about the only thing I’m likely to mostly agree with you on (being one of those ‘unreconstructed’ Bennites who you think would have destroyed our party…

  • Seth Jacobson

    Would be interested to know if you feel whether protesters suffer in the same way as politicians from the same preoccupations of the modern media for an ‘angle’, usually one that has been decided long in advance in an editorial discussion often in W8. The story that the Standard decided would be the one of yesterday’s protests was confrontation and violence. Lo and behold, they got what they wanted.

  • Neil Scott

    interesting. First time someone who was in Govt has admitted the whole Bono/Geldoff/Blair thing was planned. Of course, beyond the managing of protest by the Blair/musos “to strengthen the British hand” – this ensured the right wing media were able to play the “protest didn’t make any difference the last time, so why bother?” card. Having walked the route in Edinburgh hemmed in by huge barricades and with police snipers glaring down on us, some of us feel managed protest is not the way. Well done to T Benn et al at yesterdays demo… and well done those who have shown that the police MANAGED the bank “attack” by hemming protestors in AT the bank for hours before the frustrations bubbled over.

  • Alan Quinn

    Most of those loons involved in the violent protests will probably end up being bankers and financiers when they grow up and return to being middle class.

  • john akroyd

    Good afternoon Mr Campbell,

    Driving in Western France this morning I heard a pundit on France Culture (French radio station) speaking about Tony Blair. He had the most beautiful (and enviable) French accent… I nearly crashed the car when I discovered it was you!

    From what I could discern, I still didn’t agree with a word you were saying, but loved how you were saying it!

  • Emilianna

    With respect, I wish you’d just come out and say outright that you are against street protests. I can’t imagine it’s something people in government ever feel comfortable with.

    Clarity-wise, any single issue protest would be counter-intuitive as all progressive issues are linked, i. e. the environment is linked to growth and poverty and genocide. Protesters would do their causes a disservice by dumbing down their message for the sake of providing media-friendly sound bites.

    I agree with the little effect protests have on politicians but it’s one, if pathetic, of the only powers mere mortals have in the face of the political and business classes. Let’s not overstate the power of a voter in a democracy. People are angry because they are paying dearly for an economic collapse created by unparalleled greed and deregulation.

    And yes, Labour needed to change to win elections; that doesn’t mean Tony Benn is less of a god. I love that man!

  • Alina Palimaru

    I agree that street demonstrations are integral to the democratic process, insofar as they allow people to aggregate and articulate their views, but AC is right to point to the “lack of clarity about objectives,” which renders these demonstrations useless in the grand scheme of things (or in policy-making). That is tantamount to trying to find a solution without knowing exactly what the problem is.

    Some historians go as far as to assert that Machiavelli’s Prince has now been substituted by the mob, which manifests in their a formidable power that channels the crowd’s multiplicity of wishes into something concrete. That is an overstatement in my judgment. Of course there is historical precedent for crowds effecting change (i.e. revolutions, and I owe my life to one such crowd). But in democratic structures, mob movements rarely resulted in solid, long-term arrangements that benefited a majority of people. Angry crowds oscillate between extremes, switching from “long live…” to “down with…” in the blink of an eye, and almost never take a more reasonable, middle-ground approach. Again, Obama was very wise to caution against making decisions and governing “out of anger”.

  • Liane Hartley

    Hello Alastair, welcome back to British soil! When waiting for a lift on the top floor of our building my colleague kept pressing the button manically as if it was going to make the lift go any faster; of course it didn’t. When informed by another colleague that pressing the button wasn’t going to make any difference he replied “maybe not but I feel like I am participating!” I loved that, it’s true too, you feel better for just doing something even if it may not make a direct difference. This is powerful and tangible. If we feel positive about an action we are more likely to expect a positive outcome or, indeed, demand one? The G20 protests may not lead to a direct casusal change but surely being in a democracy is not just about how leaders lead but also about the populace behave and seek leadership too? I’d be more upset and worried if people had not taken to the streets -why has it taken so long? – it is healthy affirmation that we are not dead from the neck down and we aren’t abdicating responsibility for our conuntry to our politicians alone? Being in a democracy means we have a right, but more imoportantly, a responsibility – to participate. If we don’t we have no right to moan about it! On another matter – I’d really like to become a speechwriter and thought you would have some useful advice or pointers….point me! Thanks, Liane

  • Emilianna

    Non sequitur:

    I’ve sent them a message but I’d like to post this here as well…The ethics of a government website requiring its users to install proprietary software is dubious enough to begin with, should at least pick software that’s compatible for Linux and Mac users.

  • Alina Palimaru

    I just picked up one the comment below regarding women’s votes movement. Hmmm, let’s see, most women, especially in the US, were granted the right to vote (through a constitutional amendment) in 1918. Actually, lawmakers were favourably disposed to granting them this right in the lead-up to the war, but it only materialized in 1918 because of the lengthy legislative process. The reason they changed their mind around 1914 was because they realized they’d need women to take part in the war effort and shore up domestic production, and what better way to reward (or entice) them than the right to vote. So again, protests may have stirred something, but it’s all political in the end.

  • Sharon Fisher

    I had an acute reaction to stress on 05/03/07 which was caused by the enormous workload I had and even although I asked for help at work this did not happen. I eventually collapsed at work and was hospitalised for 5 days. I had a high pressure job but since my collapse I am now unemployed. I have been seeking to take out a civil action against my employer with the help of my Union but have found this very very difficult. I would welcome any help Alistair Campbell could give me. I am not the same person I was and lead a very simple life now and cannot cope with any pressures in life.

  • Tom

    Hey Alastair, you asked if there were any 16-18 teenagers that supported any of the 3 main parties due to the growing consensus that the youth are becoming disillusioned with politics. Well, I am 16 and i support the Labour party and although i am not too politically active, i do take a great deal of interest in politics. And i think your right in that a lot of my friends are also interested by politics. So the idea that teenagers aren’t concerned with politics is not exactly the case as you quite rightly say.

  • Phil Woolley

    Would like to comment on the BBC coverage of the G20, particularly the press conferences with Obama. Have to say that I was always slightly perplexed at your (AC’s) clear lack of regard for Nick Robinson, but thought the question he put at the Brown Obama press conference was a joke and frankly embarrassing, not focused on the challenges ahead but seeking to get up division and provoke negative comment. Same with Justin Webb this evening, after the agreement of an historic deal “if you had to highlight one thing you didn’t get, what would it be?” – followed by the comment it took him a long time to answer. No wonder.

  • paulcanning

    Something about you referencing Benn makes me … nostalgic :] loving being heretical.

    Enough of me …

    Yes you are right about unfocused protesters but the climate change ones were, weren’t they?

    Didn’t you find their policing disturbing? Seriously. It would count for something if someone like you commented on the policing of *peaceful protest like what happened to the climate camp in Broadgate yesterday.

  • Tony

    I think that AC’s (and others) distinction about the usefulness of protests with a specific message and those without is a valuable one.

    Politicians operate within a fairly narrow band of policy that public finds acceptable, and it’s a rare politician or Party that can take the first step to leading the public’s hearts and minds in a new direction on their own. Good, effective public campaigning provides the social/political space for Governments to take action and change to occur.

    An angry mob with a range of grievances doesn’t really add anything useful to the sphere of public discussion. If there’s no clear demand, there’s no clear resolution.

    A good example of effective public protest is the ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign run by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) against the industrial relations legislation of former Conservative Government in Australia. They had a very clear demand, a demonstrated public following.

    They created a space for the then Opposition to fill, and consequently forced the Government of the day to significantly modify some of the worst elements of the legislation. In the end, the campaign meant the issue was the most significant policy element at the next election, and was a major contributor to the change of Government.

    As someone who works in politics, nothing annoys me more than public campaigners who think that stirring up indignation is somehow going to bring about change. If you want change, you need to show a sustained demand for a specific change, not just anger at the way things are.

    Like Arrested Development told us:
    “Does shouting bring about change? I doubt it
    All shouting does is make you lose your voice.”

  • AC

    To respond to a few points made while I was away.
    Paul – I can only go on what I saw on the TV, and from what I saw I felt the police made real efforts to police the protests without having to exercise to force or harsh tactics. I agree with Seth that the media are more likely to focus on scenes of confrontation but I saw plenty of police being provoked and put under threat. I think our police in general do a good job at policing large crowds.
    Phil – keep watching, it is almost always like that. And have you noticed how the bulletins focus as much on their own reporters’ questions as on the answers. When I was editing the New Statesman I loved Rachel Cooke’s TV review and her observations on ‘Peston in China – like he was the American President or something.’
    Tom – now sign up your mates.
    Sharon- sorry to hear about your situation. There is very little I can say on such limited knowledge and I can’t take up that many cases, but I think you have done the right thing engaging your union and wish you well.
    Liane- write speeches and sections and send them to politicians, business leaders or anyone else who might have an interest in making them. Give them ideas and suggestions. They may ignore you. They may not.
    Emmiliana – not totally opposed, just sceptical and not keen on mob rule.
    John – thanks for the compliments re the French. I has a great time. Did you hear the reviewer speaking of me in the same breath as Disraeli, Churchill and Hugo — even I blushed.

  • Felicity

    I didn’t hear you on France Culture, but I agree with John about your excellent accent – pity Fred Taddei gave you such a poor reception on Ce Soir ou Jamais on Wednesday night. At least you weren’t ridiculed like Susan George and her bananas. The Benin banker and the economist seemed quite reasonable chaps but the poisonous “essayist” was unbelievably rude, and Taddei “the tie” (he always looks as if he’s just been dragged out of the pub) let him get away with it. I couldn’t believe my ears when Taddei patronised you with his comment about you speaking “the least good French of all of us”. You acquitted yourself very well when they finally shut up and let you speak. Not sure anyone gathered you were there to promote your book, though. Bon courage!