Why the British don’t react and the French do

If one looks in an even cursory manner at the range of ways in which people in Britain are being asked to pay for both the bail-out of the banks and the sharp reduction in state revenue brought about by the economic recession, one is struck by how many reasons there seem to be for people to react.Welfare recipients face a massive hit. Young people and their parents face a doubling of university fees that are already extremely high by European standards, as state funding of teaching is dramatically reduced. Local government workers face large scale redundancies, as the national government seeks to ‘outsource’ some of the most painful cuts to local areas. All those in work will see a raising of the pension age to 67 (much higher than that proposed in France), while pension contributions will rise for all public servants, even as they see their pay rates frozen. Less obviously in the firing line, private jobs in their droves will also disappear as the state sector they service is condemned to rapid shrinkage. More broadly, the working and middle classes will feel the pinch as universally available public services are reduced, rationed or withdrawn. There would seem to be every reason why people should take to the streets. With less drastic measures bringing out private and public sector workers, university and school students in France, it is on the surface hard to understand why large sectors of British society do not come together against the cuts.

So, why have the British not reacted thus far? Firstly, it must be recognised that the government has been reasonably successful in its initial move to win, if not consent, as least acquiescence or quiescence for its measures. An essential element of its strategy has been to refer repeatedly to its post-election discovery of a ‘black hole’ in the public finances that threatens the country with imminent financial disaster. The ‘black hole’ serves the dual purpose of legitimising a series of measures that were not in the manifestos of one or the other (or both of) the coalition partners and of paving the way for shock ‘therapy’, of the sort described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. Klein describes how, when faced with a disaster of massive and unforeseen proportions, a population can be shocked into accepting changes that, under normal circumstances, would never be accepted. Along these lines, the supposed black hole is thus being used to drive changes of a kind and severity that Margaret Thatcher could only have dreamed of.

Secondly, and in a way that again goes back to Thatcherism, a lot of the fight has, at least for the moment, been knocked out of the British people. Part of the reason that the French can so readily take to the street, as Chris Reynolds points out in his forthcoming text, is that they have active memories of collective mobilisations (1968, 1995, 2003) that successfully opposed state action. They can also draw on the capacity to oppose political elites manifested in the ‘no’ vote in the European constitutional referendum. Traditions of resistance and memories of success can thus work to sustain each other. In contrast, in the British case, traditions of resistances have been interrupted and important recent memories are of defeat (the great, but failed miners’ strike of the Thatcherite era) or impotence (the government’s capacity to ignore the massive public demonstrations at the time of the Iraq war). Thatcher’s draconian trade union legislation also plays a key role in limiting the ability of unions to mobilise: solidarity strikes are outlawed, effectively making coordinated action of the sort seen in France extremely hard if not impossible to organise; rigid rules about postal balloting make any quick or flexible response to situations difficult. At the same time, given the sometimes virulent hostility of most of the British press to any form of trade union action, union leaders are very reluctant to take any action that might be seen as ‘irresponsible’. In this context, Britain’s relatively high level of unionisation may counter-intuitively serve as a brake on effective mobilisation due to the prudence of union leaderships. One of the repeated lessons of the French case would seem to be that action only tends to have a major impact when the union base runs ahead of and escapes the control of the higher echelons.

Thirdly, there have been important socio-economic changes that militate against mobilisations. Like other countries, Britain has seen a considerable weakening of its working class’s capacity to resist. As elsewhere, working class bastions have been dismantled and there has been an explosion in outsourcing and sub-contracting. Those who retain their job face the consistent explicit or implicit threat that their employer may shift production. With customer and shareholder pressure deliberately and constantly brought to bear, workers are placed under constant pressure, with team being set against team and individual against individual, in ways that deliberately undermine solidarities. At the same time, successive governments have consistently sought to shift the nation away from a culture of universal benefits to one where citizens are consumers of increasingly marketized public services. To the extent that they accept to see themselves as competing individuals responsible for the good and bad outcomes of their choices, it becomes much harder to defend a conception of public provision as a common good. It is telling that the coming sharp increases in student tuition fees are legitimised by the assertion that university education leads to a higher income for the individual: the decision to go to university in the first place, and the course of studies then chosen, are framed as individual investment choices. It then becomes relatively easy to play off those who go to university against those who don’t and ask why the underprivileged latter should pay for the privileged former. One might imagine, in such a situation, that the traditionally predominant voice of the British left, the Labour Party, would be able to step in to assert the collective benefit derived from publically funded higher education. However, Labour will struggle to mount such a defence as it has itself been one of the main agents of the marketization and creeping privatization of public services in general and the university in particular. More broadly, it is poorly placed to federate opposition to the inequities of the cuts having abandoned its traditional commitment to equality in the Blair and Brown years, although there is some sign of a rethink now. One could argue, of course, that the French situation is in many ways similar with respect to the weakening of working class solidarity and capacity to mobilize, the progressive hollowing out of the public sector, and the abandonment by the Socialist Party of many of its traditional values and class roots. But the marketization of public service has gone less far in France and is more fiercely opposed and there are other forces on the French left that retain a real commitment to traditional leftist values and which can serve to structure opposition.

These are some of the reasons that explain why the French march and the British so far don’t, at least not in any numbers. But one should remember that the situation is fluid. The ruling coalition is clearly vulnerable to any oppositional mobilisation that can build a broad front of those negatively affected by the cuts: it is thus unsurprising that it seeks to play groups off against each other (the private sector against the public, the working poor against welfare claimants, the young against a supposedly privileged older generation, the university educated against the less qualified). But, it is clearly struggling to convince a sceptical public of the fairness of its measures. Public resentment can only grow as the initial shock fades, the cuts really begin to bite and job losses swell. Despite the range of reasons sketched out above for British passivity, it seems very probable that unrest will mount, even if it is not obvious what form a political movement that could structure it would take. Those who can recall the late Thatcher years will remember the riots that followed the introduction of the ‘Poll tax’ or community charge, as it was officially known. The extreme anger that the ‘Poll tax’ generated was due to its perceived inequity and unfairness. Although the ultimately successful opposition to it had no long lasting political legacy, it did help unseat Thatcher and served as a reminder that one should not take the passivity of people for granted. Popular resentment at perceived unfairness can be a powerful political force. A sense of radical unfairness is now swelling.

Martin O’Shaughnessy

This entry was posted in Protest and mobilisation, The crisis and the economy, The crisis beyond the Hexagon, The crisis in history, The politics of crisis. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why the British don’t react and the French do

  1. Pingback: UK students’ protests over funding cuts | La France et la Crise

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