Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Wisconsin, UK: Uncut? A question of solidarity, multi-culturalism and public-service values.


Spend a little time watching the twitter hashtag #solidarity. What are these people expressing ‘solidarity’ about?

A snapshot from this morning finds mentions of: the people of Wisconsin’s passionate defence of public service values; the UCL occupation, protesting UK higher education cuts and increased tuition fees; support for the popular uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain; UKUncut action against the NHS cuts, a call for protesters in Libya to ‘stay strong’. Then a neat tweet from @JLAmidei which sums it all up thus: #solidarity movement worldwide = EU (against austerity), USA (against union busting) & ME (against dictators).

Elsewhere there are some who deride those protesting the so-called ‘austerity’ measures in the UK for seeking to make common cause with the fight for long-overdue democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. One of the tedious-lefty-infighting arguments that followed a recent protest march in London was whether it was right or wrong for the march to divert to take in the Egyptian Embassy in support of the Tahrir Square occupation. The UK isn’t Egypt, we are reminded, and it certainly isn’t Libya. We dilute our own arguments by taking such a scattergun approach to our protests, and it’s little short of offensive to compare the short-term discomforts of a UK protester with the extraordinary bravery of those who face violent oppression in the various brutal dictatorships we have until recently been so happy to consider our ‘partners’ in the War on Terror. 

There has been at least one police-inflicted, life-threatening injury to a UK protester that I can recall in the recent round of protests, (not to mention the fire-extiguisher ‘near-miss’ which was certainly a fatality in the making). Kettling is without doubt an unneccesarily brutal and repressive response to legitimate, peaceful protest in a ‘functioning democracy’*. However, no-one who has seen recent pictures of the bodies of protesters from Libya, extracted – it would seem – from some giant blender from hell, can doubt that the protesters in the Middle East and North Africa require a qualitatively different level of courage, commitment and – frankly – desperation in order to risk an uprising against their local despots.  

Does it damage or diminish that courage and commitment if we see and claim a connection between the anti-cuts movement in the UK and the uprisings of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Iran and elsewhere? Are we blind to that desperation when we declare #solidarity? No. It is clear that for those engaged in these uprisings, knowledge of the international community’s awareness of their struggle and support for their aims is a powerful incentive, a motivator, and sustains hope and courage in very dark times. The fact that our own ‘struggle’ may be modest and largely non-violent does not mean it isn’t important. Nor is it unnconnected with what is going on in the Middle East, North Africa or Wisconsin.

Multi-culturalism fail?

David Cameron recently chose the day of an English Defence League (EDL), anti-Islamist march through the ethnically diverse town of Luton to announce (from Munich!) that ‘multi-culturalism’ in the UK had failed. He had to set up a nonsensical definition of multi-culturalism in order to to be able to knock it down, but the nub of his gist was that by being ‘tolerant’ of cultural differences between communities from diverse backgrounds the UK is encouraging extremism (particularly of the Islamic kind). His cure was to propose the imposition of a shared set of ‘British Values’ which would bind us together. But what are these values? While Cameron was spouting this nonsense, various communities in Luton – united against the digusting, racist attitudes of the EDL – exhibited their shared values by standing up against the EDL and showing the benefits the success of multi-culturalism brings. I wasn’t there to see it, but I understand that one of the biggest cheers of the day came when a group of Sikhs came to stand together in support of their Muslim neighbours. It seems the day ended with various EDL thugs fighting each other. Nice. 

Cameron, in his opportunistic visit to Egypt blames ‘Britain’ (though not himself) for a ‘prejudice that borders on racism’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/feb/22/david-cameron-uk-muslims-democracy ) for believing that Arabs or Muslims ‘can’t do democracy’. He utterly fails to recognise that this is more or less exactly the prejudice that borders on racism that he projected into his Munich speech. The EDL score a big fat zero on my ‘shares my values’ test, as does any Islamist group seeking the goal of a world caliphate by violent means. But the Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and others striving to establish true democracy in their nations by peaceful means seem to me to espouse a set of values that I am proud to share. That our politicians (of all parties) have ignored these shared values, this common cause, for decades in the pursuit of cheap oil and advantageous trading arrangements is a fact that should shame us as a nation and a ‘value’ right-thinking people must repudiate.

Sadly Cameron can’t make a good case for the ‘values’ he seems to hold. As he continues his loathsome, arms-dealing tour of the volatile Middle East / North Africa region, at this most inappropriate of times, it is clear that the pursuit of profit at the expense of human life and human rights is the shiniest ‘value’ in his collection. I am reminded again that he is basically a glorified salesman, his background in the soothing, smoothing world of falsehood that is PR. Simon Jenkins makes this case better than I could ever hope to here:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/22/britain-push-democracy-weapons-cameron?INTCMP=SRCH   

If there are shared ‘British Values’ that bind us together as a nation, regardless of ethnic or reigious background, don’t we want to articulate them, loudly and proudly as distinct from this shabby, money-grabbing, self-interested world-view? We may discover that they are in fact ‘world values’ that bind us together as a community of nations and peoples.   

*Functioning democracy and Public Service Values?

This is where the Middle East / North Africa uprisings, the UKUncut, student protests and public sector union unrest in the UK, and the developing public sector fightback in the USA really do come together as part of a single, albeit broad, spectrum of activity.

A middle-aged white man of incalculable privilege in the UK slashes benefits and services to the poor and vulnerable, surrounding himself with a cabinet of suits with identical backgrounds, and promising to ‘break the monopoly’ of public sector provision, despite having no mandate to do so. At the same time he complains, with no sense of irony, of the ‘separatist’ tendencies of other groups he doesn’t know or understand. Technically he is ‘unelected’ having not won an outright majority, and his reforms bear no resemblance to any manifesto content before the election. He may be less brutal than his now-toppling counterparts elsewhere, but he has no more of a mandate to progress this wholesale slash and burn than they had to subjugate their people. The self-interested, profit-oriented reforms he now proposes fill me and many others with disgust, and with a real fear for the lives of those vulnerable families and communities they will destroy. Meanwhile the taunted and tormented public sector workers, whose public service ethos is invoked when convenient and ignored when contracts are let, are accused of ‘self interest’ in opposing these unkindest of cuts. 

In Wisconsin, governor Scott Walker is doing the same. The rhetoric of the argument may focus on ‘union-busting’ and protecting and preserving the working conditions of public service workers and it is easy to cast this as public sector ‘fat-cattery’. But in truth there are no cats in the public sector as fat as those who head the private firms poised to move into this lucrative game if only the rights of workers and the interests of users / clients / the public in general can be ignored. The protections and rights extended to unionised workers are, or should be, the starting point for civilised employment in any sector in a ‘functioning democracy’. Making them so shoud be another one of our ‘shared values’.

Cameron made one good point in his Egypt speech: it takes more than a free election to create democracy. But the “building blocks” of democracy that he cites – an independent judiciary, free media and a “proper place” for the army – create a building full of holes. Where, for example, is the commitment to human rights? Where is the social contract which ensures human dignity for all? Where are the commitments to the health, to education, to elder care? What about sensitive, responsive policing. Where is the ethos of service that should be the golden thread that binds our public services to our public?

The assault on what ought to be our ‘shared values’ as a nation is as breathtaking as it is disgraceful. Our response to it does share common cause with actions in the US, and in North Africa and the Middle East. The globalisation of capital and its attendant destructive tendencies means that there needs to be a corresponding globalisation of the battle for human dignity.

If you feel solidarity with the public sector workers in Wisconsin; with the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East; with the Anti-Fascist League and others’ spirited defence of the success of multi-culturalism in the UK; with the beleaguered public sector workers in the NHS, our schools or local government; with the students protesting the loss of their EMA or the tuition fees hike…. or if you simply don’t like to see this country going to hell in a handcart …. get on your feet on March 26th. And march!


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