After the melee – thoughts on UK Uncut and where we go from here

Anthony Painter

ukuncutBy Anthony Painter / @anthonypainter

So that was an interesting few days. As soon as my critique of UK Uncut’s actions appeared on Monday morning my Twitter feed exploded, texts started buzzing in, emails started landing. I had a taste of the life of a controversialist blogger/columnist. Basically, it’s full spectrum abuse and praise in equal measure. The former has ranged from mild Twitter taunting to the angry and ironic blogger who wants to punch ‘my fat face in’. All par for the course.

Through the cacophony, there are many serious points to be addressed. Firstly, let me hold my hands up and say where I think the criticism of my article has been fair. I did engage in some ad hominem attacks which is a bit naughty (as pointed out by Joe Cox in his piece in response – and Dan Paskins in the comments below the piece.) It was in part this that, as Dan Hodges describes, set the ‘Twitterati’s pulses racing’ It wasn’t tactical though. I found Saturday’s events deeply frustrating so ended up going in hard on tackles and taking both man and ball on occasion.

Secondly, the strength of my argument against Laurie’s blog on Sunday may have seemed like an attack on her. It wasn’t. She is an exciting writer/activist who doesn’t play by the rules which can mean that she occasionally gets it wrong which, in my view, she did on Sunday. She thoroughly deserves her Orwell Prize long-listing and in her and Dan Hodges, the New Statesman has two of the most exciting blogging talents around.

I’m sorry that Mehdi Hasan decided to interpret my questioning of the editorial judgement of the New Statesman as a demand for censorship – and yes, his MC turn on Saturday went down a storm in Hyde Park. What they publish is completely up to them – in conversation with their writers. I just didn’t feel the ‘houmous munching’ line was respectful of the great many of their readers who marched on Saturday. It is editorial decision making and it’s what a magazine/blog does day in, day out – not sure where ‘censorship’ comes in.

My opinion towards UK Uncut remains pretty unchanged. If anything, it’s hardened. The most repetitive – and wrong – criticism of my article is that I conflated UK Uncut and the violence. I deliberately did not. However, following the appearance of Lucy Annson on Newsnight – most specifically her failure to condemn violence – UK Uncut has declared open season on itself and opened itself up who to those who are non-peaceful in intent. If you want to convince people of your cause then you don’t get to decide the rules of the game (for anarchists or revolutionaries who don’t care who they convince, they play by their own rules.) In that moment, UK Uncut broke a basic rule of persuasion – no tolerance of violence.

Whatever success that UK Uncut has had in building itself up as a creative campaigning organisation, it has been undone. In advance of the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St Paul, campaign groups agreed four principles. The first two are as follows:

1. Our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the plans of other groups.

2. The actions and tactics used will be organized to maintain a separation of time or space.

UK Uncut failed to follow these two principles. They did not display respect for the plans of the united groups behind the enormous march and the marchers. They did not separate their actions by time or space. Was there violent intent of ‘black bloc’ and others anyway? Yes. But when, where and how that would have happened is not clear. It sparked off as soon as activity away from the march began – and this is my point about UK Uncut forming a ‘gateway’ on Saturday. It is a point illustrated by Paul Mason’s report on Newsnight.

This won’t be a one-off. Would the violence have happened anyway? Yes, almost certainly but where and how and the degree to which it was differentiated we don’t know. We only know what did happen.

So UK Uncut failed to respect the marchers on Saturday thereby diluting the message of the hundreds of thousands. The message still got through – of that I have absolutely no doubt – but it was less clear than it should have been. And UK Uncut has now failed to differentiate itself from the violence (and let me be double, treble clear – UK Uncut is avowedly non-violent itself.)

Which leaves the police. As I wrote on Monday:

“Other (sensible) accounts have questioned the proportionality of the police response and, as always, serious questions do have to be asked about the nature of the response and the tactics deployed.”

The video of a police officer seemingly entrapping protestors who were camped in Fortnum and Mason hardly presents the ethics of the force in the best light. Though, it be noted that, as Paul Richards also points out, earlier on today, young people engaging in the activities of UK Uncut let alone becoming part of a ‘black bloc’ tactic are likely to be breaking the law. This is under the Criminal Justice Act 1994 as amended by the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 – a point that I hope is very clear to any young people as they ponder their futures. Having said that, what applies to the protests applies to the police – the unethical or brutish behaviour of just a few can rebound on all. Ian Tomlinson looms large over this debate.

So where now? Let’s get back to the original cause and purpose of Saturday. It was to simply convey that there is an alternative that is supported by masses – the mainstream. A movement succeeds either when its moral case is irresistible or its numbers are so great. Tomorrow, ‘All together for the NHS’ is organising a series of events across the country. This is a critical battle. You can see where the events are here and you can sign the petition here. The battle is not just against cuts. It’s against the abolition of the NHS. Not my words, but the words of the BMJ.

Be creative, be persuasive, gather numbers, and in the words of the unifying football anthem….walk on.

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