The rise and fall of Occupy London

No, you’re not

One night last week the BBC news ran an item about the Tobin Tax on financial transactions. An economist bobbed his head up and down speaking rather earnestly about why it would be damaging. Then something extraordinary happened; the report cut to a rather nondescript person standing at the Occupy LSX camp outside St Pauls Cathedral who maintained that it definitely would be a good idea.

Why, I wondered, were they giving a few dozen oiks* like this a national platform? Why not drag someone out of the Dog and Duck and ask them? I felt like Jacobin Mugatu in Zoolander when confronted with Blue Steel; “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”.

Occupylsx began back on October 15th when protestors were, entirely predictably, denied permission to ‘occupy’ the London Stock Exchange, a building which is already pretty well used and not apparently in any urgent need of further occupation. They found an eager welcome at St Pauls Cathedral. Fewer people attend Church of England services each week than watch Eggheads on BBC 2 nowadays so the clergy, which also has a fair degree of sympathy with the protestors, probably thought it would be fun to have some new people to hang out with for a couple of days.

Alas the Church had underestimated the protestors’ staying power and sheer ingratitude. When the church was forced to close its doors for the first time since World War Two a number of high ranking churchmen at St Pauls resigned. Faced with a loss of tourist revenue the church asked the protestors it had given shelter and succour to when they were turned away from the Stock Exchange to leave. The protestors repaid the church’s generosity by telling them to get stuffed. Church politics drowned out actual politics and the protest, instead of being about capitalism, turned out like a scruffy episode of The Barchester Chronicles.

Recognising the loss of focus the protestors launched a new occupation on October 21st, this time of Finsbury Square, a square outside the City only notable for being where the 271 bus terminates. This occupation attracted almost no attention and the attempt to refocus the movement fizzled. Compared to 32,988 ‘likes’ for the Facebook page of Occupy the London Stock Exchange, the Occupy London Finsbury Square page has just 51.

With interest dwindling even in the main occupation at St Pauls the protestors decided on another attempt to refocus the movement. November 18th saw the occupation, or breaking and entering to give it its legal name, of an empty office building in Hackney owned by the bank UBS.

Once inside the protestors opened a ‘Bank of Ideas’, as one occupier put it “The Bank of Ideas is an educational space where people will be able to trade in ideas and creativity rather than cash”

If this all sounds a little vague don’t worry. According to minutes of the meetings at the Bank of Ideas concrete proposals for radical change are being made. November 21st saw a “Proposal to make a white board to illustrate decisions made” and another “To establish an ‘Art School’ and ‘Healing Space’ for healers, group therapy, art and movement, music, dance. Space for WG’s (Working Groups) and individuals, for occupy volunteers and general public”. That was as nothing compared to the minutes of the first meeting which declared “you have to BELIEVE you are going to be here longer, the energy can push us through! ‘feel the magic’”

And these are the people the BBC is asking about the Tobin Tax. When you see them being taken seriously perhaps you can understand why someone might feel like Will Ferrell’s elaborately coiffured fashion designer.

Unlike the occupy protestors in New York, who have still failed to come up with a list of demands after two months, the London occupiers issued a statement almost immediately. But it was striking how much it looked like statements issued at every protest over at least the last twelve years. That is because they are a hard core of activists, do not have mass support, and they represent very few but themselves. They are seasoned activists who are launching one occupation after another to try and hold the media’s attention.

On October 22nd more than 2,000 people demonstrated outside Parliament in favour of a referendum on Britain’s EU membership but you’d never have known from the BBC. That is ten times as many as are sat outside St Pauls playing pan pipes for Palestine. Yet it is the small, unrepresentative, hard core members of the occupy movement who are put on the TV. They are not the 99%. They do not have numbers. Just persistence and a favourable tailwind wind from the media.

This article originally appeared at Global Politics

* Substituted by the editor for the original ‘drug addicts’


Clerically clueless – The Church and the protestors

The hottest love is the soonest cold

It is difficult to understand quite what protestors expected to happen when they tried to ‘occupy’ the London Stock Exchange a couple of weeks ago. Firstly, it’s a pretty well used building already so is in little need of further ‘occupation’. Secondly, it’s a privately owned building. Even Britain’s supine Police force was unlikely to allow a well advertised act of breaking and entering to take place.

So the protest was rather silly from the off. But as they kicked their heels outside the stock exchange the protestors knew enough to know that they would get a warm welcome from the Church of England, an institution which has become rather silly itself.

And they did. Canon Giles Fraser of St Pauls Cathedral not only welcomed the protesters but asked the Police to leave. Right on Rev!

Alas, this soon blew up in the Canon’s face. The protestors had more staying power – during the day at any rate – than he perhaps suspected and St Paul’s was forced to close its doors for the first time since German bombs were falling on it in 1941. Soon there were mutterings of legal action to remove the protestors and Canon Fraser resigned. A few days later the Dean resigned too.

Canon Fraser isn’t the only Anglican clergyman to make himself look silly recently. The Bishop of Chelmsford teamed up with Vanessa Redgrave to protest about the eviction of the residents of Dale Farm. But when asked on Radio Five why he didn’t offer some church land for the Travellers to live on, he blustered and evaded. Charity begins somewhere else.

These sorts of situations are always on the cards. Since at least the time of Archbishop Ramsey (1961 – 1974), who seemed more interested in the legalisation of homosexuality and the evils of the Vietnam War than the salvation of man’s eternal soul, the Church of England, or its leadership at least, has been getting political. And it is less the Conservative party at prayer than a bunch of grumbling socialists.

In 1985, under Archbishop Runcie, the Church stepped forward to oppose Margaret Thatcher’s government with the publication of ‘Faith in the City’, a dreadfully outdated document (even then) which criticised her government and harked back to some mythical Keynesian Golden Age. Thatcher, a low church Methodist no more ready to be lectured to by high churchmen than high Tories, loudly rubbished it.

Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop, has kept this tradition up. He has criticised the ‘Big Society’, free schools, and the coalition’s legitimacy itself and he revealed his hidden economist to attack the government’s deficit strategy.

Those who see Jesus Christ as first century Galilee’s answer to Che Guevara would argue that the Church has a duty to speak out on such issues and to an extent it does. The trouble is that when you board the protest bus there’s no guarantee that the bloke you end up sitting next to won’t be a bit weird and incoherent. As clergy inside St Pauls lined up to defenestrate themselves outside it was reported that “a dozen or so protesters wearing tattered suits and white zombie makeup performed a clunkily choreographed mass dance routine to the tinny sound of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, waving a huge, black banner saying: ‘Dancing on the grave of capitalism.’”

For the protestors the whole episode has been a waste. They set out to protest something vague about capitalism and have ended up protesting something vague about the inner workings of St Pauls Cathedral. An attempt to re-connect with the original aims of the protest by setting up a second camp at Finsbury Square (which is round the corner from a branch of Barclays) fizzled.

But the biggest loser has been the Church of England. Like a sad old man enjoying the flirtatious attentions of a young woman, the ailing, aging, and increasingly irrelevant Church jacks in the job of saving souls and dives into politics, gulled by the promise of an infusion of youthful vigour.

But it is a one way street. When the dalliance at St Pauls spelled trouble for the Church the warm welcome of the clergy was forgotten by the protestors who loudly and aggressively proclaimed that their right to protest trumped all else.

By flirting with silly people the Church has made itself look very silly. There’s an old saying that “He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon” The same goes when supping with Michael Jackson impersonators.

This article originally appeared at Global Politics

Disestablish the Church of England

Take me seriously

The stinging attack on the coalition by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, was one of the stories of the week. Writing in the New Statesman Williams claimed that “no one voted” for various coalition policies ranging from education, getting borrowing under control, the NHS and The Big Society.

This is obvious nonsense. At the last election no party gained enough seats to form a majority government making coalition inevitable, people did vote for it. Indeed, the two coalition parties together got 59% of the vote, a level of support not reached in either of the landslides of 1931 or 1945. It is also rather rich coming from a man who doggedly supports the right for his unelected Bishops to sit in the House of Lords.

It is, however, only to be expected. Since at least the time of Archbishop Ramsey (1961 – 1974), who seemed more interested in the legalisation of homosexuality and the evils of the Vietnam war than the salvation of man’s eternal soul, the Church of England, or its leadership at least, has been less the Conservative party at prayer and more a bunch of social democrats in full cry.

The Church of England finds its anti-Conservative voice at times, like now, when the Labour party is clueless. In 1985, with Labour indulged in another bout of navel gazing, the Church stepped forward to oppose Margaret Thatcher’s government with the publication of ‘Faith in the City’, a dreadfully out dated document even then which criticised her government and harked back to some mythical Keynesian Golden Age. Thatcher, a low church Methodist no more ready to be lectured by high churchmen than high Tories, loudly rubbished it.

Williams is, of course, entitled to his opinion, and the New Statesman is entitled to print it. But who does Williams actually represent? Weekly attendance at Anglican services in the UK has fallen from 1.6 million in 1968 to just over 900,000 last year, less than 1 in 60 of the population, fewer people than tune into Eggheads on BBC2. This is despite the fact that there are supposed to be 25 million Anglicans in Britain. This figure, however, includes everyone who has been baptised Anglican. Many of those people don’t set foot in church again until they marry and then don’t reappear until their death.

Indeed, as head of the established church in England it is Williams’ job to attend to the spiritual wellbeing of the nation. Yet rates of crime and family breakdown and declining religious belief generally suggest he isn’t doing much of a job.

But Williams isn’t solely to blame for the collapse of the Church of England. The truth is that nationalised religion works no better than nationalised anything else. Compared to the United States, for example, Britain is in a state of religious poverty. There, without an established Church to provide the pretence of faith, the religious market is a thriving, often rowdy place, where churches must actively seek members. The members themselves, without the religious kite mark of establishment to guide them, must take a more active interest in the churches. This situation encourages religiosity and all the while culture warriors prowl the boundaries of public life on the lookout for any sign of religious incursion.

It may well be that our comparative secularism is preferable to the occasionally fevered religiosity of American public life. But it is a secularism bought by using the Church of England to supply the minimum of religion; three visits a lifetime. And with the time on its hands other churches have to spend spreading their message the Church involves itself in politics, always from the left wing perspective of more top down government as befits an episcopal institution.

Throw in local factors such as a leadership which seems to spend a fair amount of its time telling you which bits of the Bible you shouldn’t believe in, from the creation story to the immaculate conception, and you have a recipe for irrelevance. It is also, as Williams demonstrated again this week, a recipe for continued left wing political action.

There was nothing original in Rowan Williams attack on the government; he was given the platform he was because he is head of the established church in England. However, it is the very nationalised nature of this institution which means that it cannot fulfil its primary task of promoting spiritual wellbeing and, instead, spends ever more of its time as a left wing campaign group. If this is what the Church wants to be then we should, of course, let it. But we should make it clear that the state will not continue to give its support to such a partisan political body. We should disestablish it.