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The battle of St Paul’s

October 27, 2011

When the Occupy London movement descended on the City the Saturday before last, it was perhaps naïve not to entertain some fears that the 5000 protestors might leave behind a core of campers. After all, bedding down for one’s beliefs is now de rigeur for the savvy, modern day anti-capitalist.

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

It is not surprising that the Cathedral has sought desperately to avoid a pitched battle. It finds itself enormously conflicted between its pastoral duties to the local City community, churchgoers and the protestors themselves. Rummaging for the right moral message, St Paul’s is also acutely aware of the practical need to keep visitors flowing and protect its status as a global treasure.

Put simply, the Cathedral and its Chapter are not best suited to political battles. And it shows.

Day One and the message was that the protestors were welcome. But in being perceived to permit the encampment, St Paul’s left itself open to a legal tussle that could run and run. By last Friday, tent pegs still firmly in place, the Cathedral closed its doors on the inoffensive but frankly spurious grounds of ‘health and safety’. I suspect that by taking the initiative in such dramatic fashion, the St Paul’s authorities hoped that the protestors, horrified by the grave impact of their actions, would politely leave. Instead, Occupy LSX issued a measured statement. They would reorganise the camp, preserve access to the Cathedral and comply with advice from the fire brigade.

As the decade-long experience of Parliament Square’s protest site teaches us, we underestimate the determination and guile of a protestor beneath canvas at our peril.

I have been vocal in my dismay at the encampment and the historic closure of one of the jewels in London’s crown. The right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy and must be preserved. But a semi-permanent protest village – which annexes a communal space designed for the enjoyment of all – crosses into the bounds of selfish vanity project. Not to mention the impact on local businesses, visitors and residents. Haven’t we the collective right to protest at the protestors, just as they vocally demand consideration of their grievances?

They might reflect too that it is now the encampment, not their message, that is the story. That is a real shame. For amidst the pandemonium, I reckon 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. 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 endure the economic reckoning over the next couple of years, I suspect we shall see more and more of these protests. Make no mistake – they will resonate amongst a much wider audience, even if that audience disagrees with the method of expression.

There lies a huge challenge for the entire political class in the battle for St Paul’s. And it is not how to uproot a few tents.