Protest has been wrestled back from the middle classes
As a new round of strikes roils Britain, we should not let our responses to the varied campaigns of industrial action be dictated by the frustrations of inconvenience. Unlike the gripes of put-out Remainers about the likes of joining the non-EU queue at the airport, the strikes are responses to genuine and long-simmering grievances.
Far from marking social disintegration, some of the strikes — notably those of health workers — are in response to a government whose own policies over lockdown collapsed public services more effectively than any truculent union leader of tabloid imagination could ever hope to.
The strikers also stand in pointed contrast to the larks of the Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion protestors, whose antics have dominated so much of protest coverage in the UK for the last few years. For a start, the unions are themselves representative civil society organisations, with a due-paying mass membership, elected officials and internal deliberation. They also represent people with jobs that actually matter — which is why the withdrawal of their labour matters to the rest of us, too.
In this, they are significantly different from the self-appointed middle-class activists vandalising art works, sitting in front of traffic or gluing themselves to train doors. There is, of course, a time and a place for civil disobedience and direct action in any society that values civil liberty and the right to protest.
But what is so noticeable about the actions of recent eco-protestors are their over-inflated claims, themselves an ideological legacy of a globalism in which all politics had to be cast on the cosmic scale of saving humanity and the planet, rather than the more mundane and immediate interests of ordinary mortals.
Whatever the merits of the industrial action by various unions, their current campaigns are explicitly based on material interests — wages and working conditions — rather than vacuous virtue-signalling. Focused as they are in public or public-adjacent sectors, the unions’ actions also put them in direct conflict with Government. Again, this in contrast to so many of the eco-protestors, whose demands are simply more radical versions of policies that the British state is itself already committed to – Net Zero is an explicit target of British government policy.
That we are seeing a return to genuine social contention on the basis of material interests is a vast improvement to British public life, after a decades-long era in which all protest politics has been dominated by middle-class concerns — over university fees, the NIMBYism concerning the third runway at Heathrow and, of course, the vast marches in favour of stopping Brexit. The unseriousness of these protests was evident in how demonstrators often self-consciously adopted the mode of carnival with ridiculous costumes and ironic, self-deprecating slogans.
Contrast this with the images of the recent pickets. Let us hope that at least one benefit of this new wave of strikes will be to squeeze out and overshadow the antics of virtue-signalling middle classes.