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 62.

    46 Sorry to break it to you, but since 1983 the country has run a negative balance of trade i.e. even including invisble earnings from banks etc. we have run at a loss as a country. All the apparent improvement has come from increased debt - both public and private. It is a terrible mess and both flavours of government contributed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    70 Taking a general point and selectively quoting it out of context as you have is poor form.
    Public (and private)sector pensions have been a slow motion car crash for decades - unaddressed by successive governments of both hues. It was known in the 80s, 90s and 00s yet little was done. People have been living longer for a long time now, the notion it suddenly became a problem in 2008 is fascile.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Redfootball - you don't spend money you don't have. That's the economics of the madhouse. I'm a public sector worker and am not only tired of over-paid bankers, but over-paid council executives who earn fat-cat salaries and university VCs who also get the same, not forgetting your average top union official who does very nicely thank you. You don't have to be a banker to milk the system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    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 behaviour that would see them sacked in the private sector. The Union reps rattling on about injustice defend slovenly workers and stop them being eradicated from the organisation. It's a shame no one has the guts to stand up to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    As someone self -employed and part of the private 'middle' seam of this country it annoys me that most debate seems to go from public sector bemoaning about bankers and the elite cast-iron money pots that they have. A huge proportion of this country has a far tougher task finding work let alone a pension. Public services serve the public. No generated income no money for services.


Comments 5 of 203



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