Britain Rising

A powerful new opposition movement is beginning to emerge

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 8th February 2001

At last it’s happening. Just as the neoliberals on both sides of the Atlantic proclaim universal victory, a composite radical opposition movement is beginning to emerge. It’s confused, it’s contradictory and it looks like nothing we’ve ever seen before. But for first time in 14 years of campaigning, I feel that I’ve witnessed something unstoppable.

I’ve spent this week touring the country with a ragged coalition of greens, anarchists and socialists. Everywhere we’ve been so far, I’ve picked up a sense of excitement I’ve never felt in Britain before. In Glasgow we drew 500 people: according to the locals I met it was the biggest political meeting in the city for 15 years. In London, 1300 turned up. But the numbers, unprecedented though they may be, are less impressive than the unity of purpose. In London, green activists stood and cheered an RMT official as he left the stage to join the Tube strike. In Coventry, car workers demanded an end to global warming. No one denies that there are issues which divide us, but in contesting the neoliberalism to which almost every major political party on earth has now subscribed, we have discovered an oppositional accord which overrides our differences.

Neoliberalism demands the privatisation of everything. While the General Agreement on Trade in Services, due to be negotiated next month, would force governments gradually to transfer their mandate to the corporations, Britain has anticipated it with the universal application of the private finance initiative. PFI serves companies better than overt privatisation, as the government guarantees their income stream. For the same reason it serves us worse: we lose both public control and public funds.

Neoliberalism also insists that companies be permitted to dump their costs onto people and the environment. As deregulation allows firms both to pollute the planet and to sack their staff without consultation, steelworkers and global warming campaigners have discovered, to their surprise, that they’re on the same side.

New corporate freedoms, moreover, can be sustained only by denying freedom to everyone else. While the companies seizing our public services are permitted to use “commercial confidentiality” to disguise their intentions, our emails, even our computers can now be monitored and raided by the security services without a warrant. While corporations have acquired the legal status of human beings, but without most of the accompanying criminal liability, jury trials are being denied to those who protest against them. The government which granted passports to the billionaire businessmen accused of involvement in the biggest arms corruption scandal in modern times has just announced new restrictions on asylum seekers. The world has been wrested from our hands.

In seeking to wrest it back, we have yet to develop a coherent political programme to which all of us can subscribe. While the greens support small business, trades unionists find workers within big corporations easier to mobilise. The anarchists want to smash the state, while the socialists want to rebuild it. But the unprecedented solidarity between these disparate groups is beginning, I feel, to develop into a programme in its own right: a grassroots re-organisation of the political process, propelling democratic renewal from below.

We must, of course, be careful not to mistake the affirmation expressed at these meetings for wider public consent. But the public support for the strikers contesting the privatisation of the London Underground and the West Midlands hospitals suggests that some at least of our demands are beginning to resonate with Britain’s biggest political movement: the disillusionment party. The extraordinary numbers promising to attend the protests at the Faslane nuclear base on Monday and the G8 summit in Genoa in July suggest that this is the beginning of something big.

The new political movements have re-discovered in the public meeting an effective forum for dissent. We were promised that television and the internet would promote participation; instead they have provided our representatives with new screens to hide behind. As radical movements struggle to escape from an enclosed and virtual politics, public speaking has become the new rock and roll.

The enclosure of power will not be easily reversed. But had any New Labour ministers attended the meetings we have held so far, they would have scurried back to Westminster very worried indeed. This is not the end of neoliberalism. But it is the beginning of the end.