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Eye on the News

Peter Whittle
St. Paul’s Tent City
The Occupy movement in London reveals the impotence of British institutions.
23 November 2011

“Occupy Wall Street” may be a misguided slogan, but at least it refers to something specific. In London, the mission statement of protesters setting up camp seems to be “Occupy Everything.” That provides a big umbrella under which just about every cause and every malcontent can shelter. Some weeks back, the protesters came to rest, with their 200 or so tents, at the bottom of the steps leading up to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The church’s majestic dome, though surrounded by modern glass and steel upstarts, still manages to dominate and define the London skyline. Much has been made of the protesters’ forcing the cathedral to close its doors for the first time since the end of World War II, causing it to lose around £20,000 a week in tourist ticket sales. The staff, which has since reopened the church to the public, may already be regretting that move, since it appears that some demonstrators are using the church grounds as a public restroom.

The protesters have become remarkably well-organized in a short span of time. They now have their own bank account to take donations, a kitchen, an information center, and even a so-called Tent City University that offers lectures. They have been visited by celebrities clinging like limpets to any passing modish cause. The protesters show every sign of getting ready for a prolonged stay, in the full knowledge that the longer they hold out, the harder it will be for the authorities to evict them.

Anger at bankers has been such that the protesters initially enjoyed a wave of public empathy. This has since been replaced by impatience both with their intransigence and with the difficulty of discerning what they hope to achieve or even what they stand for—beyond self-important outrage at the general unfairness of the “system.” What passes for their cause has not been helped by the Guy Fawkes masks, made popular by the anarchist antihero in the film V for Vendetta, that many have taken to wearing, or by the fact that a majority of the tents are left empty at night—their daytime occupants disappearing, presumably, to the warmth of their own beds.

The camp may be dominated by a banner declaring that CAPITALISM IS CRISIS, but this collection of anarchists, eco-warriors, and professional agitators can offer nothing as a genuine alternative. Nobody for a moment seriously suggests socialism as a solution, other than hard-Left fringe groups like the Socialist Workers Party, which attach themselves to anything having the smell of “direct action” about it. That these protests represent the views mainly of the protesters themselves is confirmed by the fact that despite recession and ever-present crises, established left-wing parties throughout Europe have seen no increase in public support.

What’s most revealing about the St. Paul’s protest, though, is how it exemplifies the lack of will that runs through so much of Britain’s political and cultural establishment. The beleaguered Church of England has run this way and that, trying to gauge the right response to the protesters on its doorstep—threatening to have the camp removed and then losing heart and calling off its action. Four senior clergymen have resigned recently in response to public criticism of their statements about the protests (some pro, some con). Meanwhile, both politicians and police seem incapable of taking any action. A so-called “peace camp,” set up in Parliament Square opposite the House of Commons ten years ago, remains there today, disfiguring one of the capital’s most beautiful and popular sights. The same fate, it would seem, is in store for London’s own village church.

Peter Whittle is founder and director of the New Culture Forum, a columnist for Standpoint, and author of several books, including Look at Me: Celebrating the Self in Modern Britain and Monarchy Matters.

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