Fri 17 September 2021

An institutional ignorance towards past protests informs Britain’s modern day antipathy towards radical dissent, says Shafi Musaddique

There are a handful of topics that Brits find it awkward to discuss – among them, money, sex and protests.

Britain has an awkward relationship with protesting. It is a paradoxical one, full of contradictions and double-speak, exposed in a year that has seen its renaissance.

In Britain, protests over the past 12 months have straddled race (Black Lives Matter); gender (most notably after the murder of Sarah Everard); and, more recently, sport and class (football fans versus billionaire owners).

At the very moment when the country should be reflecting positively on the blossoming of resistance to injustice, the established narrative – in the media and among those in positions of power – is still deeply reactionary.

When a group of Manchester United fans broke into a near-empty Old Trafford live on television earlier this month, calling on their American owners to sell the club – an event that subsequently cancelled one of the biggest global televised sporting contests – politicians, broadcasters and clubs quickly issued statements about the need to protest in “the right way”.

These responses strike at the heart of a duplicity that goes back centuries.

In his book, Natives, scholar and artist Akala puts it succinctly: “Britain has two competing traditions – one rooted in ideas and freedom, equality and democracy, and another that sees these words as mere rhetoric to be trotted out at will and violated whenever it serves the Machiavellian purposes of power preservation.”

A public relations act greases Britain’s image, while the very ideas and values trumpeted both at home and abroad are crushed. As Akala goes onto state: “Much of Britain seems depressingly committed to forgetting its own radical history”. 

A Proscribed Past

Ambivalence towards not just not radical ideas, but protest itself, seems to have filtered through to those who lack a voice. 

This is an argument teased out by Professor Danny Dorling of Oxford University. “Brits are strange, we don’t protest,” he says.

Almost half of all French adults have been on a lawful protest. In Spain, Italy and Denmark, well over one-third have protested. But, less than 15% of adults in the UK, or one in six people, say they have been on a protest.

Professor Dorling argues that this is a legacy of the material growth and domination of the British Empire, which caused a type of aversion, or unconscious submission, within the British protest psyche. 

It could be argued that such attitudes have been forged further back in time. Stretching back 300 years, British peace and politics has been relatively untouched: a hereditary class system reformed yet unbroken, little internal conflict (a civil war along the way, but tiny in comparison to the internal conflicts and revolutions experienced in other parts of the world). This has arguably led to a passive protest culture in modern times – if things don’t change, because they never have, why bother? 

It is this way of thinking that perhaps keeps disenfranchised groups down. This played out with the Manchester United protests, when old-school pundit Graeme Souness said that he thought nothing could change from protests – compared to the more idealistic Gary Neville who called for a “mobilisation towards reform, regulation and a fan-led review” into the unchecked capitalism blighting the game.  

In Parliament, we have seen a further extension of anti-protest language and policies – epitomised by Home Secretary Priti Patel’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which intends to expand the remit of “illegal” protest.

Then there’s the whitewashing of protests when they have occurred. This is clearly seen in the popular portrayal of Suffragettes: ‘good’ women dressed in white, peacefully requesting their rights with the odd aberration of martyrdom. Little do we know about Kitty Marion, actress-turned-terrorist, who set fire to a racecourse grandstand in retaliation for the death of Emily Wilding Davison, who died after being trampled by King George V’s horse during a protest at the Derby. Without the work of academics such as Fern Riddell, with fresh perspectives on people like Kitty Marion, how many of us would know such stories?

India’s independence movement, too, has had its radical elements conveniently whitewashed. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent salt march certainly played a big part in Indian independence, but how many of us know that resistance, often violent, in Bengal (current day Bangladesh) in the 1920s and 1930s paved the way for Gandhi’s success later on? A violent rebellion modelled on the guerrilla tactics of Ireland’s Easter Uprising failed in 1930, but it had caused a ripple effect among the wider Indian public that led to disgruntlement and anger against British rule. 

Perhaps I am lucky enough to be informed by both the East and West. When I look at the history of Bangladesh, my parents’ country, I see the power of the protest movement led by students in the 1950s. It rallied many across religious and regional lines against Pakistani rule, sowing the seeds for a national identity and paving the way towards its eventual independence in 1971. 

With more knowledge such as this I believe that we can begin to understand Britain’s radical history and to better appreciate our country’s troubled antecedence – away from the state-proscribed narrative of morality, benevolence and progress.

The reality is that there is a complex paradox of protest, both peaceful and sometimes violent, running through Britain’s history.


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