Striking while the iron is cool

Staff picket the entrance to Stirling Castle

Allow me to begin with what will be dismissed by many as a ludicrous proposition: there are some in the government who are privately disappointed that today's protests are not much bigger.

Yes, of course I know that the last thing ministers say they want is disruption and strikes that cause widespread inconvenience and make the job of deficit reduction even harder.

But if there is a surprise at the action today, it is that we haven't seen more of it. And as I shall explain, I think for some in Downing Street, that is a bit of a worry.

When the budget cuts were announced back in 2010 there was an acceptance that austerity, once it started to bite, would be greeted by widespread public anger. Government unpopularity at this point in the cycle was a given and the big question was how the British population would make their fury felt.

For a moment last summer, people wondered whether the English riots were the start of it. But it quickly became clear the looting and disorder had very little to do with cuts or welfare reform.

Then the focus shifted to the Occupy movement - was that going to be the rallying point for broad-based public anger? It would appear not.

The small-scale rallies and demos which pop up on the front page of local papers don't seem to be part of an identifiable protest movement. Today's national strikes over pensions and the police march over conditions of service seem to reflect the narrow self-interest of public workers rather than the vanguard of a more general outcry.

Those out on strike include...

Strikers at Stirling Castle
  • Job centre, border and tax office staff
  • Health visitors, pharmacists and paramedics
  • Lecturers and other staff in colleges and new universities

At first sight this might suggest to some that the government has "got away with it". Britain feels more resigned than furious at the impact of austerity. Although the coalition took a kicking in last week's local elections, if the nation really wanted to scream their opposition to cuts and reforms, why did two-thirds of the electorate in England not even bother to vote?

And this must worry David Cameron and some of his closest advisors. Why? Because we have a prime minister whose central mission is the idea of building an active citizenry.

He wants to see armies of armchair auditors checking on public spending and creating a fuss if they don't like what they see; he wants grassroots activism to shape planning and development; he wants real power to flow from the Whitehall elites to the ordinary Joes and Josephines in parishes and wards; he wants a Big Society where citizens get involved in their local communities.

Instead, some of his advisors privately despair at a population that appears to count the cost of democracy rather than understanding its value.

My guess is that they imagined the pain of the cuts would wake people up to their democratic rights. While disagreeing with those who oppose their policies, of course, I suspect they thought this period in our politics might also represent an opportunity to rouse a populace that has come to regard itself as consumer rather than citizen.

David Cameron may pat himself on the back for so successfully making the case that deep public sector cuts are a necessity. But there may also be part of him that is disappointed the argument was so easily won.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    It is obvious that things get pushed thru whether you agree or protest or not. Anybody remember protests against the Iraq war. Not this administration but.. It is painfully obvious that there is no growth but the first thing which is trotted out by GO&DC is we are going to press ahead on the same old road. This government seem to forget that when in opposition they supported much that got us here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    "He wants to see armies of armchair auditors checking on public spending and creating a fuss if they don't like what they see;"

    He's not the only one & when we do - we'll check that all at BBC paying their taxes properly - INCLUDING YOU!

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    It's good to see that Cameron's attempted divide and conquer tactics aren't working.

    We are ALL affected by banker greed and incompetence, whether we work in the public or the private sector. The only people not affected are the fatcats, and their politician enablers.

    And for the record, I work in the private sector, and I am not a union member. Nevertheless, I anticipate down arrows :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    The apathy seen in the lack of support for the public sector mirrors the same in last week's election turnout because below the conscious surface where people don't normally explore, there is a deep vein of disillusionment with democracy, politics, the public sector, the economy and the global economy. We all feel powerless and at the mercy of reckless, greedy and self-serving authorities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    196 Silly reason, many job losses will occur in local councils, how these are achieved and what priority on spending will be are all locally determined and will be decided by your local council.
    Cuts will occur for all , it is a shame local politicians spent more time moaning about things they do not control and not dealing with how they will deal with the things they will have to deal with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    119. Gibbs is my Dad:
    Used to work in the Civil Service. Left because I could not tolerate a culture where mediocrity was tolerated and people were allowed to get away with behavior that would see them sacked in the private sector.

    Ditto & the insidious Old Boy network and cronyism. Ability and excellence at one's job was never valued: the incompetent were always promoted; corruption was rife.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    @ 195.MrAngryGuildford

    It's comments like this that make me despair; how can people believe this stuff????

    I work 32 hours a week (for childcare reasons). My day is 9am till 6pm 4 days per week. That's 8 hrs work + 1hr lunch. I commute an hour each way so my door to door day is 8am - 7pm (11 hrs).
    Does that really sound like a "leftie sponger"?

    It is also irrelevant to the dispute...

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    Mark Easton said: "If the nation really wanted to scream their opposition to cuts and reforms, why did two-thirds of the electorate in England not even bother to vote?"

    Because those elections were only local elections: local policies have little impact on national politics. I'd have thought that that observation was obvious! Overall, people have lost all confidence in The System: it's corrupt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    No sympathy for them. All doing the bare minimum, retire early, and still moan. Brother-in-law has worked 24 yrs for HMRC. Can't remember the last time he did a full 5 day week. Always ill. Starts at 9 & still manages to get home by 4 or 5. He thinks it's great. All like it at his office !!! My tax + NI is paying for them. Leftie spongers bleating here - the state doesn’t owe you a living.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    More evidence of BBC bias :

    "Today's national strikes over pensions and the police march over conditions of service seem to reflect the narrow self-interest of public workers rather than the vanguard of a more general outcry."

    Can we not leave that kind of comment to the Daily Mail ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    People aren't voting or taking part in protests because they are resigned to the fact we do not live in a democrasy.

    Protesting is virtually considered illegal now in this country and our politcal parties merely represent factions of the business party who win based upon how much money they get from the markets rather than policy.

    We are the plebs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    I count four in one picture and two in another. When that suits the media, this usually can be spun up by a factor of a thousand at least. What's with the accuracy now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    I can buy Makr Easton's theory - but could go further. Cameron and Osbourne actually want a big confrontation with unions to prove their Thatcherite credentials. She had her miners strike to prove she was man enough for the job, The new Iron Ladies (AKA posh BOYS) want to be men - only one problem - there aren't any miners anymore, their idol killed the industry

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    Morally, the Government is doing a good job. Noone (and that includes the few rich people after you account for the ltax oophole closures in Osborne's Budget) feels happy abiut "the cuts". That is a sure fire sign that everyone is paying in and that is exactly how it should be,

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    As a mainly Protestant nation, for all the moaning, austerity seems to rather appeal to us. Partly because its not real austerity, of course, but a small percentage drop in living standards. The banks played some part just as we benefited strongly from them at other times. But the really big mistake was Labour ballooning the public sector and borrowing to do that. Now, its payback time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    zzgrark - and what do you think the banks and the other "masters of the universe" were doing if not using borrowed money in the same way and ignoring the consequences and the lessons of history? Worse, many of them were hiding behind spurious academic "reports" on "safe" investments while at the same time paying bonuses beyond the dreams of avarice. Subsequent events show they've learned nothing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.


    I got accidentally caught up in the Police march today when looking for my own colleagues. They invited us to walk with them which I did for a while. There were some very nasty people along the march making a general anti police demonstration. Quite shocking to be inadvertently on the receiving end of that. The police we were with didn't bat an eyelid. Every day is like that for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    Suchan104 widen your reading - Galbraith wasn't talking just about public sector jobs, although why they are any less "real" I know not. Look at the Australian model. As for "cushy" jobs, how do people know that? I can show you CS jobs where people live under daily threat of assault, are showered with vile abuse and worse. As for 172.Mr W; what "reasonable" surveys - the Express, the Mail?

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    "..we didn't cause the crisis but we're being made the scapegoats for bankers' greed."

    No. It's because your employer (govt) ran it's 'business' (the PS) very badly up to c.2008. It was using borrowed money to inflate its payroll by 20% in a global boom despite record tax receipts. Any private busns acting so stupidly would have had to retrench. So it is now with yr employer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    Many people posting here are simply posting uninformed opinion. Some don't care to know the facts as it might spoil their prejudice.

    However, for anyone who would like to know exactly what the facts of this strike are, please ask and I'll do my best to explain within the measly posting limits the BBC provides.


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