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Why the battle of St Paul’s is a challenge for us all

November 11, 2011

Mark was asked to write for PoliticsHome about the political challenges represented by the St Paul’s encampment in the constituency. The following was posted on their site this morning:

When the Occupy London movement descended on the City of London, it was perhaps naïve not to fear that the 5000 protestors might leave behind a core of campers. After all, bedding down for one’s beliefs is now de rigeur.

That the campsite of choice was in the shadow of the iconic and glorious St Paul’s Cathedral has caused an almighty headache both for the City Corporation and, particularly, the Church.

Enormously conflicted between its pastoral duties to churchgoers, the protestors themselves and the local City finance community (the source of much of the £40 million recently raised by St Paul’s for renovation work), the Cathedral, its Chapter and even the wider Church of England have struggled to unite. Rummaging for the right moral message, St Paul’s is acutely aware of the practical need to keep visitors flowing and protect its status as a global treasure. But, clergymen have asked, does that need trump all else? In other words, should the Chapter’s primary duty be to a building and its supporters or the disaffected on its doorstep? Fearing that the debacle was fast descending into a modern day parallel of Jesus at the temple, the Cathedral has suspended its eviction bid against Camp Occupy.

I have no such internal conflict about the practical aspects of Occupy’s protest. To me there is a clear boundary between the right to demonstrate (an essential cornerstone of our democracy), and a semi-permanent protest village which presumes to annex for itself a communal space designed for the enjoyment of all. No doubt the protestors would argue that everyone is welcome in their pungent parish. Nevertheless haven’t those who dislike it – local businesses, visitors, residents – the collective right to object?

That is not to dismiss the message behind the encampment, however. For amidst the pandemonium, I have said for some time that the Occupy movement are onto something.

It is not just the usual suspects on the anarchistic left of politics, but increasingly a lot of middle class, Tory-voting people who feel that the rules of capitalism have become skewed against them. Take an email I received after supporting the eviction in a television interview. The correspondent sympathised with the encampment and signed off ‘No protestor me, by the way. Small business owner, ten employees, married, two kids. But shafted by the banks just like everyone else’.

The protestors’ message taps into a deep sense of unease, impotence and frustration amongst people who, despite having got themselves educated and then worked and saved hard, now view themselves as the losers of the globalised, capitalist system. As a result, as we all face the economic reckoning over the next couple of years, I suspect we shall see more and more of these protests and they will resonate amongst a much wider audience, even if that audience disagrees with the method of expression.

Here lies the political conundrum. We are reaping the rewards of decades’ worth of debt accumulation, implicitly supported by a generation that enjoyed an expanded welfare state, cheap goods, never-ending lines of credit and inflated house prices. All this has quietly torn massive rifts – between young and old, debtors and savers, East and West (I have written many times before about these generational and global gulfs). Profiting from and exacerbating those canyons have been fervent financiers whose passion for light-touch government appeared to slip away when the roof caved in.

Now that it is sovereign debt unravelling, politicians have found themselves at a loss. In a more transparent and fast-moving 24/7 media age, they are given neither the space nor time to work through serious solutions, which is why we have seen a sequence of sticking plasters. In addition, the rapid action required to shore up immediate economic problems necessarily lacks democratic legitimacy. No national leader has an explicit mandate for committing such huge sums of money – and, in some cases, transferring national sovereignty – when there is no guarantee of success. But unless they do, economic pain will be meted out ruthlessly on their people. At some point, therefore, the economic reckoning will turn into a political one.

Yet when both elements are brought together, they boil down to an unavoidable truth – that there is no way of painlessly or equitably untangling a culture of debt and credit built up over decades. The friction between the old structure’s beneficiaries and its hapless young inheritors is sure to define the West’s story for some time.

In the years following 2008’s financial crisis, politicians attempted to dodge that reality, freezing imbalances and even running up further debt in a bid to maintain the status quo. The political context of Britain’s 2010 General Election campaign reflected that – politicians sensed that the electorate craved security, not a dose of reality.

But things are changing. Alongside governments, which are cautiously beginning to unpick entitlements, the Occupy Movement is starting to articulate a discontent that suggests people are slowly grasping the need for change, even if there are divergent opinions on its ideal form. While I think it highly unlikely, therefore, that the encampment in my constituency will achieve anything coherent, history may well view it as part of a momentum that grew and ultimately created the conditions for the economic restructuring. In truth, however, much of this new thinking may well come from the emerging economic power of the East.