Why these rebels without a clue can’t simply be ignored

Published in the London Evening Standard (October 18th, 2011)

It is easy to mock them as rebels without a clue, let alone a cause. The ragbag revolutionaries against everything from bankers and capitalism to nuclear power, privatisation, student fees and “the monetary system”. One insurgent wants to smash the state, another merely enjoys the camaraderie of the camp in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

This is a new form of democracy, they say, so there are no leaders and anyone can be against anything. One demands a boycott of Transport for London. “All bus journeys should be free,” agrees another. “They are going from A to B anyway, so it is a marginal cost.” It is hard to argue with logic this flawed; it demonstrates only the urgent need to raise school standards.

Meanwhile these avowed anti-capitalists wear the Guy Fawkes mask of their anarchist anti-hero from V for Vendetta – blithely ignoring the fact that this was a movie made by one of America’s 100 biggest companies, with profits last year of £1.6 billion, in perhaps the world’s most nakedly capitalist industry.

Not that this has stopped overpaid actors and label-loving hip-hop stars from joining the fray. To complete the farce, there is even a posturing pastor at St Paul’s trying to get down with the kids, delivering sermons on the impossibility of serving God and Mammon.

Will we now see the disposal of the Church of England’s £5.3 billion investment fund, which increased by a cool half billion last year, and all its prime property? Don’t hold your breath.

Of course, it was capitalism and globalisation that produced the clothes the protesters wear, the tents they sleep in, the food they eat, the phones in their pockets and the social networks they use to organise. Without it, we would live the short, brutal lives of our agrarian ancestors.

As I said, it is easy to mock. But do not dismiss the mood that lies behind the wave of protests that started four weeks ago in the United States, are supported by half of all Americans and have since spread around the world.

We live in potentially dangerous times. The West, laden with debts and hooked on welfare systems it cannot afford, faces a gloomy future. At best, we are looking at a lengthy period of stagnation. At worst, as even the cautious Bank of England governor predicted, our financial crisis could dwarf last century’s Great Depression.

Already, people are seeing living standards decline. It could get far worse. Look at Ireland, where they have dropped by one-fifth. Or Greece, where the state is bankrupt, suicides are on the rise and four in 10 voters favour extremist parties of Left and Right.

History teaches us that at times of turmoil people often turn to populist solutions. And in Britain we enter this grim period at a time of dwindling faith in governing institutions. The feral behaviour of bankers, politicians, the police and journalists has opened a chasm between ordinary people and the governing elites.

Decent folk must look on aghast at the latest political scandal. They see Liam Fox – heading one of the most sensitive departments – linked to wealthy donors with their own agendas to fund some strange alternative civil service and pay for his pal to jet around the world.

Already many voters believe politicians are in the pockets of vested interests – and powerless in the face of economic catastrophe. If we want to stop frivolous protests from turning into something more volatile, we must confront the deep anxiety and genuine anger out there.

There is cause for fury, after all, when politicians behave like Dr Fox, when bankers hand themselves bigger bonuses despite ruinous global gambling, when CEOs without an entrepreneurial bone in their body routinely pay themselves 200 times the average wage and get vast pay-offs when booted out.

Look at Craig Dubow, quitting after six years running Gannett, the US publishing giant that owns 200 British newspapers. During his time in charge he sacked 20,000 people and saw his share price fall sevenfold – yet last year he earned £6 million and his pension pot has been stuffed with £20 million.

Such grotesque abuses make it hard to defend capitalism, despite its obvious benefits for us all – let alone to convince anyone we are all in it together.

Far and away the most crucial cause for concern is the squeezed generation sacrificed for the sins of their fathers and mothers. These are the young people leaving school and university into the coldest of climates with no jobs, no homes and not much hope for the future. One million are unemployed. Three million live with their parents.

The Coalition, forced to grapple with a nightmarish inheritance, protected the early years programmes and, above all, pensioners from the worst ravages of these dark economic times. It needs now to focus on the next generation.

They were right to increase university fees and eliminate the educational maintenance allowance. But other measures are more questionable, such as extending the lower shared room rate of housing benefit from 25-year-olds to 35-year-olds. Why should younger adults get less housing support?

When Andrew Cooper arrived as Downing Street’s director of political strategy he warned that voters’ biggest concern was fear for their children’s futures. Many of the Coalition’s policies, such as those on schools, planning and welfare reform, will tackle some of the problems holding back the squeezed generation. But they are long-term solutions.

Ministers need some shorter-term offerings, such as speeding up rollout of the new enterprise allowance to assist young people starting new businesses, currently being trialled in Liverpool. They also need to think the unthinkable: does the minimum wage – increased this month – deter firms from hiring inexperienced staff at a time like this?

So feel free to mock pampered young Westerners proclaiming “rebellion will not stop until the corporate state is extinguished” while wearing Puma T-shirts, talking on iPhones and tweeting. But we need to tackle their justified concerns – or face the possible consequences.

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