“Where are the students on the rampage?” Polly Toynbee asked plaintively in the Guardian recently. “Compare this inertia with the fury over Vietnam back in the late 1960s, when Britain had no troops in that war.
“Why so little anger over war or climate change? Political activism seems moribund, students voting on cheap beer in their union bars. A gentle camp-out in a field near Heathrow offers signs of life, but looking back on the anti-Vietnam movement, where is the real passion now?”
The real passions that anyone involved in the anti-war movement will have felt upon reading this are a mixture of anger and admiration at Toynbee’s effrontery. Far from exhausting itself, as she claims, in “one great anti-war demonstration”, the Stop the War Coalition has over the past six years organised a series of marches whose number and size are without precedent in British political history.
The demonstration called last summer at very short notice in response to Israel’s assault on Lebanon attracted 100,000 people, a comparable number to those who attended the largest and most famous of the anti-Vietnam war demos in Grosvenor Square in October 1968.
Yet the activities of this immensely important movement have usually been ignored by the Guardian, or at best have received a few scraps of condescending attention.
Moreover, they have been sustained against two very powerful counter-pressures. The first is an immense establishment effort to depoliticise social life and encourage people to identify their well-being with individual consumption. The Guardian and its sister paper the Observer have enthusiastically participated in this, with more and more of their content devoted to lifestyle, celebrity, Big Brother, and yet more degraded rubbish.
Secondly nothing has done more to turn people away from political involvement than the British political system’s utter failure to hold to account those responsible for the criminal and disastrous adventure in Iraq. Instead Tony Blair was allowed to scrape back into office in the 2005 general election.
And who was in the vanguard of efforts to get him re-elected? Why, none other than Polly Toynbee, pleading with disillusioned Labour voters to put clothes pegs on their noses and return to the fold.
Joss Garman of Planet Stupid argues against Toynbee that the Camp for Climate Action represented the beginning of a new form of activism – an alternative to what is dismissed as the failed anti-war movement.
I don’t really see this myself. I have every sympathy with the camp’s cause, especially given the barrage of media, legal, and police intimidation to which its participants were subjected. But in both scale and method it looked more like a return to the anti-road campaigns of the 1990s than a new step forward.
Here Toynbee does have a point. Why, given vast media coverage and official acceptance of the mortal threat posed by climate change, did the camp attract only a couple of thousand participants?
There are major and minor reasons for this. The minor reason is that the camp organisers’ emphasis on specialised forms of direct action for which people had to be trained in advance must have helped keep the numbers down.
The major reason is how climate change is represented by the mainstream media. On the one hand, just about every day there is another story about climate change and its destructive consequences. On the other hand, the solution is presented as individuals changing their lifestyles – recycling, finding greener ways to travel, and so on.
The gap between the scale of the problem and potential solutions is vast and paralysing. The idea that collective political action is essential to addressing climate change doesn’t yet seem relevant to many people.
This will change as people develop greater confidence in their ability to change the world. Here numbers are important. Mass marches, dismissed by Garman as “boring and disempowering”, can give a sense of collective power. The anti-war movement still has a big role to play, no thanks to Polly Toynbee and her kind.