Belfast Telegraph

Athens, Paris and London... the year the people hit back

By Katherine Butler

It was one of the images of 2010. The Duchess of Cornwall in evening gown and jewels, mouth open, panic-stricken eyes, recoils in horror as the limousine carrying her and the heir to the throne strays into one of the biggest street protests staged in London for years.



From students revolting about university tuition fees, activists railing against the tax status of corporate fat-cats, or popular anger over bank bonuses and savage spending cuts, the icy winter of 2010 was when Britain stopped quietly grumbling and sighing.

The clashes, protests, sit-ins and occupations of 2010 were hardly the French Revolution — even if Camilla had a certain Marie Antoinette air about her reaction.

Were they part of a wider global, protest movement? Certainly, in many parts of Europe and beyond, 2010 will be remembered for economic upheaval and the protests that austerity inspired.

But the mere fact of brutal spending cuts being visited on a country was not enough to guarantee rioting or obvious forms of social unrest.

In the Irish Republic and Latvia — the two European countries worst hit by banking and business collapse — savage IMF-led programmes went through in sorrow more than anger.

On the December weekend when Dublin finally agreed to apply for an EU/IMF bailout, thus surrendering what many feared was the nation's economic sovereignty, the BBC was reduced to repeating over and over the same images of a lone man shouting and waving his fists outside the gates of the Irish parliament.

Greece, by contrast, had from mid-2009 seemed like a country on the edge of a nervous breakdown. May 2010 brought days of violent clashes and the deaths of three people trapped in a burning bank.

The scenes of Europe in ferment threatened the resolve of governments which had advocated austerity as the way out of the crisis, which is why turbulence on the financial markets around the euro continued.

The Greek Government was thought strong enough to bulldoze through one of the toughest budgets in Greek history. Spain, too, a victim of the eurozone debt ‘contagion’ witnessed mass anti-austerity protests in September and a 24-hour general strike at the end of that month caused chaos.

In France however, the Sarkozy Government, facing elections |in 2012, may have to compromise with the unions over belt-tightening. Days of rolling protests against pension reforms in October united unions and students and paralysed much of the country as oil refineries were shut down, fuel depots blockaded and schools closed. Up to three million people demonstrated in the event that marked the climax of the protests.

The coming months will tell whether the winter of Britain's discontent marked the beginning of a new era of political activism and engagement.

Of course, similar things were said of Iran in 2009 when massive public protests threatened a velvet revolution. Twelve months on, anniversary protests were a pale shadow — a testament to the fightback mounted by the authorities.

Ironically, the show of people-power in the UK did not go unnoticed in the Islamic republic, where the British ambassador was summoned to be told of ‘concern’ over police brutality against students in the streets of London.

In Britain, there is a stronger chance the protest movement |will expand, not dissipate. Tuition fee protests petered out after |MPs voted the measures through anyway.

But huge damage had been inflicted on the Liberal Democrats and their leader, Nick Clegg. And big business began to feel the fury, with shopping disrupted by protesters staging sit-downs in High Street stores.

One protester carried a football, a symbol of his anger at government plans to slash schools' sports funding. “I'll be back,” Frederick Mohan (21) warned. “I'll keep coming until people start abandoning the three main political parties in favour of a newer approach.”

The mood of insurrection was fuelled by the furore over WikiLeaks and their hactivist supporters — even if one group wanted to destroy authority and another wanted the state to do more.

In the boardrooms, bosses were left fretting about what would happen if austerity protesters and social activists joined forces with hackers and ‘anarchists’ to paralyse the economy.

The Establishment — whether political, corporate or economic — will urgently have to reassess its defences in 2011.

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