From Charles I to Margaret Thatcher, when British governments have got above themselves and tried to do what is contrary to most public opinion, they have been brought to their senses by the same powerful force: the London mob.
Taking to the streets is the last weapon available to an infuriated populace – visible as I write on the streets of Hong Kong and Puerto Rico and in the past in so many other places: the 2011 Arab Spring; the 1989 ‘Autumn of Nations’; and of course the 1848 ‘Spring of Nations’ referenced in that name.
Yet here we are, faced with an un-representative British government with less legitimacy than any in living memory, making decisions without popular mandate with a potential to affect many more people much more seriously than Thatcher’s poll tax, and there is no mob to be seen on the streets of London.
There have been some polite demonstrations against a no-deal Brexit, which have been boycotted by many on the pro-Brexit left on the grounds that they are middle-class, neo-liberal and Blairite. There have also been some demonstrations calling for a general election but, so deep is the rift among former labour party supporters, in a kind of mirroring, many on the anti-Brexit left have failed to support them because they are ‘too cross with Jeremy Corbyn’. This polarisation on the left has been accentuated by the unpleasantly engineered charges of anti-semitism, in which the BBC has played a disgraceful role, matched only in political irresponsibility by the way in which it has conferred the ‘oxygen of publicity’ on the likes of Nigel Farage, Ann Widdecombe and Boris Johnson over the years, presenting them to the British public as entertaining eccentrics rather than the dangerous threats to democracy they actually constitute.
One of the most depressing aspects of these divisions is the claim by both sides in the debate on the left that they speak for the working class. If we look at voting patterns in the 2016 referendum it is clear that the urban population (where most of the working class, especially its black and ethnic minority members, resides) was largely in favour of remaining in the EU. The the average majority for ‘remain’ was 55.2% in the 30 largest cities. All the largest UK cities (apart from Birmingham) – London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Bristol, Cardiff, Belfast – voted with substantial margins to remain in the EU. Other than in Birmingham and nearby Coventry and Wolverhampton, the urban ‘leave’ majority was concentrated in what Americans call ‘rustbelt’ areas – where local populations have been hit hard by deindustrialisation, such as Sheffield, Bradford, Wakefield, Sunderland, Nottingham, Derby, Stoke-on Trent and Hull. Sadly these areas are likely to be among those hit hardest by any no-deal Brexit.
Surely, a future historian might think, it is precisely in these large cities that one might expect people to take to the streets. Look at Manchester, with its brave tradition of popular protest going back to Peterloo in 1819. Or London, where in 1641 the London apprentices and their supporters took to the streets to prevent the bishops from entering the Houses of Parliament to thwart Charles I, and the Gordon rioters shook the establishment to its core in 1780. Not to mention the 1990 poll tax riots that are often credited with bringing Thatcher down. But so far, no sign.
What can explain this? Perhaps it has something to do with race and racism? Certainly a reaction to racism played a major part in triggering some of the most recent urban rioting, for example in London’s Brixton, Liverpool’s Toxteth and Leeds’s Chapeltown in the summer of 1981, and the so-called London riots of August 2011. But racism has, if anything, intensified considerably in recent years, fuelled by May’s ‘hostile environment for immigrants ‘ regime in the Home Office and the sense of entitlement of far-right racist parties in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Have people become too afraid to protest? Or lost faith in the solidarity of the white left? Have they succumbed to the kind of social paralysis that affects people with long-term depression? Or are they simply too busy scratching a living in the precarious gig economy to be able to take time off for the comparative luxury of political self-expression?
Of course I do not want to place the responsibility for leading us out of the mess that is obviously not of their making on any members of the urban proletariat, black or white. In puzzling over why they are not taking to the streets there are also other factors to be taken into account. Is it a question of culture? I seem to remember that some of the impetus behind the poll tax riots came from the anarchist group Class War, linked to a kind of punk culture that was consciously anti-racist, including mixed punk/reggae bands like UB40. I am no expert on popular music these days but it would seem to me that Stormzy’s popularity among Labour Party members follows in such a tradition. Nevertheless, it is one thing to have middle-class Glastonbury-goers applauding the music and quite another to have them out on the streets in solidarity with victims of racism in Lewisham or Moss Side. Or, for that matter, with food bank users in Brent or South Shields. Is it a question of leadership? On the principle that a mob is not a mob until it’s mobilised. Who knows? What seems clear is that there is now in London as in other cities across the land a bubbling cauldron of anger that seems overdue for an overflow. But where will it go? And who will be scalded in the process?