Why Direct Action?

Merrick, 11th March 2000ce

Well, although we thought we had no illusions, we all expected a lot from the change of government. Everyone was surprised at how jubilant they were on the night of May 1st 97. We danced naked in the street chanting 'it's over! It's over!'. Really, honestly, we did. Going home at 6am, there was a guy on the other side of the road; when I said the single word 'Portillo' we laughed and laughed.

Maybe we'd secretly hoped for a lot cos we didn't know what to expect - nearly everyone I know is too young to remember the state of the nation before Thatcher. Hell, some of my friends weren't even born pre-Thatcher. But, despite a few good things that the Tories wouldn't have done, the main thing we've learned in the last year-and-a-bit is this: There is a job of Being The Government, and there is a job of Being The Opposition.

Being The Government is to be vicious, uncaring, conniving, devious bastards out to rip everyone off in order to protect their position (and whose few good deeds are always too little too late); Being The Opposition is to say it all should be fairer and everyone should have more of everything. And how well, how quickly, how completely Labour and Conservative have switched roles. I know of someone who wrote to his Tory MP about Labour's charging students tuition fees ("Priorities for government; Education, education, education"? Only if you can pay for it). The Tory said 'the cost of education should not be borne by the student'. Excuse me? Who took away dole over summer and housing benefit, who stripped the grants and invented student loans?

Similarly, Labour used to call increases in prescription charges 'a tax on the sick', yet as soon as they were in power they put them up. They used to ridicule Conservative fiddling of unemployment figures, yet how many of these fiddles have they undone? I'll tell you - less than one. And even with the all the arrogance of 18 years in power, even with a genuine fascist like Michael Howard in power, they didn't seriously suggest taking away the right to trial by jury, a fundamental and essential right granted in Magna Carta and upheld by every government since.

The fact is that the party of government is at the mercy of corporate power too big for it to resist. Ministers even go abroad on 'trade visits', proving they are little more than sales reps, corporate puppets. And so we shouldn't be surprised when they get fascistic. (Incidentally, I don't mean Nazi - that's another thing altogether). As main man George Orwell said, 'fascism is, after all, just an extension of capitalism, and even the most tolerant capitalist will go fascist when the pinch comes'.

And so we shouldn't trust Oppositions. Labour's promises, from banning fox hunting to not arming oppressive regimes, have proved to be lies. Labour - at the mercy of the giant biotech companies - support the genetic engineering of food that most people want banned. What kind of 'listening government' is that? Their 'comprehensive' road review approved over 80% of the Tory schemes.

And don't think the Liberal Democrats are any better - it's easy to say you'd make everything great when you know you'll never get into power. When they do get it, they're no different - in their 92 manifesto they said they'd not build roads if other options cost less, financially or environmentally. Three years later the Newbury Bypass (a scheme that fails both those tests) started, fervently supported by Newbury's council and MP - both LibDems. In Kingston Upon Thames, the LibDem council pushed through the controvesial scheme to rip down poplar trees in a park in order to give a 'better view' to some new luxury flats being built. (The following election they suffered the worst LibDem defeat in the country.) The examples are legion. So the real lesson from the Labour victory of 97 has to be not to trust middlemen. That we mustn't just kick back at the bullshit, we must make our own alternative.

The overt repression of the later Tory years encouraged a concerted and colourful backlash in the form of the burgeoning direct action movements, be they Reclaim The Streets parties, tree protests, genetically engineered crop removers or whatever. It's an odd phenomenon - the harder they push, the more resistance they encounter. Maybe this is why the USA and UK have such a cool counterculture, cos they are the most excluding and repressive of the 'democracies', whereas elsewhere it gets assimilated and so often diluted; in France they made the Green Party leader the Minister of the Environment, and for many people that's good enough. We must recognise that such tokens are not good enough. That a step in the right direction is not far enough. That we have to carry on.

We have a right to directly affect the things that directly affect us. If we can envision a better world then we have a duty to make it happen. As Reclaim The Streets leaflets say, direct action is not a last resort, it's the preferred way of doing things. Leaving it to other people is the last resort.