Sticking it to the man, Icelandic style

This evening, two thousand Icelanders gathered outside parliament demanding the resignation of their government. Demonstrators waved placards, banged pots, and kicked the steel fencing the police had erected around the parliament building. The noise was incredible.

Corruption, wage inequality, the environment and a plethora of other issues sparked the protest. The Icelandic campaigners have made a list on Facebook here.

The issues are similar to those protested in the UK. The police response could hardly have been more different.

One lady was shaking a rock in a noisy plastic jar throughout our entire conversation. When I told her that a protest about similar issues in the UK just weeks ago had seen hundreds of people kettled, she had no idea what kettling was. I explained that kettling was a tactic the police used to control protesters which involved forming a ring around them and not letting them out for food, water or toilet breaks, sometimes for hours at a time.

She had never heard of it, and she was horrified. “You should take photos of it, so you can show the world what they’re doing!” she said.

When your country has a population of 300,000, your relationship with the police changes. “You probably know the policeman’s daughter or something. You’re probably related!” my Icelandic host said that evening. The intimacy of the Icelandic community seemed to create a far more humane, direct connection between the activists and the police.

It’s a world away from anonymous faces hidden behind riot gear, bellowing threats of arrest or wrestling demonstrators to the ground.

It feels to me as though the British left is characterised by the anger, despair and bitterness of people who feel they are not being listened to, who may as well be shouting at a brick wall.

In Iceland, I felt less bitterness. I didn’t see police and demonstrators screaming at each other. A little child with a blue ukulele was being wheeled around in his buggy. It felt like a community expressing its anger, without being ashamed of that anger, or without their peers deeming it misbehaviour. Public protest made Iceland’s government bring the election forward in 2009. Perhaps this is what it is to live in a country where protests have led to real change. Was that change possible because police, government and activists could treat each other as people they might bump into in the corner shop?

Is this what it means for a country to be formed from a single community? Does Britain view protesters as little more than criminals? I know very little about the Icelandic movement. If you’ve been involved, I’d love to hear your views.


Citizens should not have to fear their government in 21st century Britain

I was protesting today. There was a demonstration on Whitehall, a bunch of angry, shouting protesters. We stopped traffic. Some seventeen people were arrested.

I fully expect to pitch up to work on Monday to hear a lot of mild-mannered Labour voters earnestly holding forth about how we live in a democracy, the people have chosen, and the fact that the left lost is no excuse in the slightest for rowdy, disruptive protests.

So, for the avoidance of any doubt, this is why I am on the streets.

Conservative cuts to welfare are killing people. In the directest possible sense. David Clapson died of a lack of insulin because benefits sanctions meant he couldn’t afford the power bills to refrigerate the stuff. Mark Wood starved to death after his benefits were cut. Tim Salter, an agoraphobic man with failing eyesight, hung himself after he was deemed fit to work by private workplace assessments firm ATOS. The Black Triangle campaign has a list right here.

To say nothing of those who have, you know, only been made homeless. Because obviously it’s fine and healthy for people to live in daily fear of losing the roof over their heads, having their support system yanked out from under their feet.

All of these things had already happened when the population decided to re-elect the Conservatives. These deaths were widely publicised, and still, so many people chose to vote Tory. Those people didn’t have to die. Only by making sure the state knows full well how angry we are can we hope to save those who still have a chance.

In the wake of the election, friends with disabilities and mental health issues say they are feeling scared. That is the actual word that more than one person has used. They are not talking figuratively. Citizens should not have to fear their government in 21st century Britain. But they do. And that is why I’m on the streets.

Oxbridge and the meritocracy myth

The Oxford-Cambridge boat race was a couple of weeks ago. For one half of the Oxbridge graduates, it was an excuse for jolly hockey sticks cheering. For the other, it sparked a soul-searching episode as the predictable lifestyle media leaped over their laptops at the opportunity to show the world what terrible toffs the assembled Oxbridge ranks are.

From the bottom of their collective Pimms glasses, a number of them complained: So what if the country is ruled by an Oxbridge-educated elite? Don’t they know that Oxbridge is, in fact, a meritocracy? Surely we want our country to be ruled by the best, and what does Oxbridge deliver if not the best? Continue reading Oxbridge and the meritocracy myth