Saturday, July 17, 2010

Democracy Turfed Off

It's so long ago it gives me a little warm glow of nostalgia, but time was that New Labour tried to ban the largest demonstration in British history, all for the sake of some grass. No, no, no - not the sort Ministers stuff into their crack pipes, the grass in Hyde Park of course.

The demonstration, which eventually attracted over a million people, making it the largest mobilisation in the history of the UK, was to be cancelled because the grass issue may also mean "People can get crushed, people can break their legs - there are a lot of things that happen at this time of year and it would be very unwise of us to take such a risk" which, as an official statement, reads more like a local mafioso saying "Shop windows can get.... broken... if you're not careful."

This all flooded back to me when I saw that Boris Johnson had made these comments about the eviction of the "Democracy Village" camped outside Parliament. "I think it's wonderful that as a city we can protest. But it is nauseating what they are doing to the lawn."

Quite correctly Johnson has identified that democracy is a lovely idea, but not when it comes at the price of a nice bit of the green stuff. You need to pamper your pampas, after all. (Evening Standard has pics of the great grass massacre, here)

However, while I have little sympathy for the argument that grass has more rights than people, I am slightly more concerned about the rights of individuals to permanently rob everyone else of common land. It's not simply the uber-hierarchical model of moralising protest that Brian Haw typifies, it's also the fact that if you're opposed to, say, privatising public property, you shouldn't then claim personal ownership over common land yourself.

These protesters made the Square unusable for everyone else, and they hoped to do this on a long term or permanent basis. Is that democracy or simply giving yourself property rights over land that was held in common? Is it wrong for the State to sell off public property but ok for a self-appointed group of randoms to rock up and claim our land for themselves?

Even those poor little blades of grass were part of the common treasury until this small squad of elitists squatted on them. I'm not entirely sure I 100% approve.

I'm certainly not saying that these issues are not complex and, usually, require some sort of negotiation but I am saying that democracy is not just about everyone being allowed to do whatever they like, no matter how anti-social.


Peter Marshall said...

Since the camp has been there many more others have actually visited the square, normally empty and cut off by traffic. What we should be complaining about is the almost total neglect of this square at the centre of London's tourist trail for so many years. The protesters have actually made it more of a tourist attraction rather than the rather dull turn-off the actual square, essentially maintained as an isolated large traffic roundabout was before.

As for the grass, it's been in poor condition for years and given a little time and rain will recover without Boris wasting the fortune on it he obviously intends as a political statement using our money. A few recent showers have already brought much of it back to life and the aerial photo you link to gives a ridiculously false impression of it even at its worst.

I'm not a great supporter of the campers, though I think they deserve much more honest reporting than they have received. They can't sensibly be described as a "small squad of elitists" although a few of them might qualify, they are a very mixed group.

Also in the square but very separate from the "Democracy Camp" is the Parliament Square Peace Campaign of Brian Haw, Barbara Tucker and other supporters. I would find it hard not to admire Brian's principled protest over the last nine years although again I don't always agree with his views. Its a shame that biased and ill-informed reporting has often confused this with the "Democracy Camp", and this possibly reflects a deliberate ploy by the authorities.

Parliament Square is also not as you state a part of the world heritage site which adjoins it on two sides across busy roads.

It's a site I visit frequently, and have photographed and reported on the various happenings there over the years.

Jim Jepps said...

Hi Peter, thanks for the interesting comment. Just to note I don't mention the world heritage site - I think that's in one of the links and I wouldn't want people to think because I link to something I'm endorsing it.

I agree the Standard piece is very poor reporting for instance.

On elitism I think I'm going to stick to my guns on that even though it sounds quite harsh. Check out the Brian Haw link on why I think this sort of thing is about the special few gaining the moral high ground.

Kevin said...

I have a tiny bit more sympathy than you about the campers but I have to agree about Brian Haw - admirable though his stand may be, the years of personal sacrifice have made him aggressively self-righteous and arrogant.

After the recent 'victory flashmob' at New Scotland Yard, celebrating the demise of section 44 with other photographers, a friend and I stopped off at the Democracy Village on a quiet Sunday lunchtime. We got talking to a Jamaican tourist who started off by asking what the camp was for (there seemed to be no-one else around to ask, apart of from one extremely drunk man who appeared to be only sheltering from the sun in the 'information' tent) and then strongly defended the war in Afghanistan.

It was exactly the sort of debate that a 'Democracy Village' should be about, but Brian Haw, who was fairly close by, angrily demanded that we move away and stopped bothering him, as though his long tenure in Parliament Square meant that he now owns the place.

I'm afraid we both walked away in utter bemusement.