On Saturday, the ethics of direct action were called into question following UK Uncut’s street party outside Nick Clegg’s London home. During the early afternoon, upwards of 300 activists- many of whom had brought along their families- followed UK Uncut stewards to Putney to protest against austerity measures sanctioned by the Deputy Prime Minister.
Almost inevitably, internet forums soon began humming with debate over whether it was right for the activists to engage in this form of “personal protest” against an individual. Tory MP Louise Mensch suggested that targeting Clegg’s home was “intolerable bullying” and re-tweeted opinions that the protest was likely to frighten his children (if, that is, they were there at the time). Jamie Reed, a Labour shadow health minister, similarly argued that it was “inexcusable to target Clegg’s family.”
The protestors hit back with picture evidence testifying to the peaceful nature of the protest, and made it clear that they never intended to threaten Clegg’s household. The police revealed that no arrests were made at the street party, and no attempts to harass the Cleggs were reported.
What is interesting about this exchange is that it suggests the public do not have the right to directly protest against individual politicians or target their families- something the national media do every day.
As the reach and power of the British media has grown, so the personalisation of politics has increased. Today, the personal is political, and the majority of politicians are fully aware that public office comes at the cost of their private lives.
MPs and journalists cannot rage against the public’s targeting of the individual when they do the same themselves. Sir Stuart Bell was the victim of a defamation campaign in 2011 when a local paper claimed he was a candidate for the dubious honour of the country’s laziest MP- a story that quickly did the rounds in the national media. Regardless of whether the accusation was true or not, certainly this was direct barracking of an individual. Why did the papers focus on Sir Stuart, rather than turning their fire on the Labour party or the parliamentary system as a whole? Because that would not have made as interesting a story.
The national media does not spare politician’s families, either. Think back to Tony Blair’s days as PM, when his son Euan was detained for being drunk and disorderly. The incident caused a brief media storm and brought into question Blair’s wisdom in suggesting on-the-spot fines for larger louts, not to mention bringing untold humiliation and unwelcome attention to the 16-year old Euan.
Those who complained about UK Uncut’s actions on Saturday see the ‘private’ individual as out-of-bounds to public protest, while daily reading stories about the personal shortcomings of their MPs and the scandalous indiscretions of celebrities.
Why shouldn’t protest become personal, when government policies attack the ability of the vulnerable to live private lives at all? When cuts to benefits prevent the sick and disabled from living autonomous lives, when parents are forced to work two jobs to make ends meet, and when students are obliged to use those hours put aside for studying in order to pay their way through university, private lives are taken away.
In such a time, isn’t “personal” protest justified?
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog