Learning from the past to fight austerity today

Speaking at RIC's anti austerity event
Speaking at RIC’s anti austerity event

On Thursday 18th June, I spoke at a great event organised by the Radical Independence Campaign as a precursor to the massive anti-austerity demonstration in Glasgow and London on June 20th.

The brilliant Independence Live live-streamed the event and it’s available for you to watch again. I’d really recommend it – the other speakers, from Castlemilk Against Austerity, the Glasgow Homeless Caseworkers who are out on strike and RIC’s very own Cat Boyd were all fantastic.

Here’s the speech I gave on learning from history and from each other and uniting against austerity.

I read an article the other day by Seumas Milne who said;

If opposition is to be successful… it will need to become a social movement. But the starting point has to be a break with a post-election sense of public powerlessness. Unchecked austerity is not inevitable. Stronger governments than this one have been forced to change course – and defeated.

That’s the basic theme of what I want to say to you tonight – that austerity is awful, debilitating and disempowering, but it’s far from inevitable. With a strong enough, coherent enough and diverse enough movement, we can and we must defeat it.

I want to give you a wee bit of hope – for those of you who might be feeling that it doesn’t matter whether we elect 56 out of our 59 MPs on an anti-austerity platform or that another protest, petition or sit in won’t make any difference. Well there are plenty who have come before us who have overcome and there are many amongst us who are winning in small ways who we need to stand with and learn from.

I want to start by setting out what we’re up against. Right now, a million people across the UK face the indignity, the stigma, the shame of having to rely on food banks to feed themselves and their families. For the first time, the majority of people in poverty are now in work, often working two or more jobs, yet they can’t earn enough to cover the basics. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. Austerity kills – there have been untold numbers of people who have either starved to death or taken their own lives after being made to feel like parasites, spongers, skivers and liars when their only crime was to be poor, vulnerable or disabled.

And all this against a backdrop of 60% of the cuts yet to come.

Statistics and news like this can be crippling. Trying to fight back over the last few years, this has so often felt like a hopeless battle. Another amendment in the Lords overturned; another petition ignored; another protest overlooked. And still they win.

It’s in that context that it can be easier to share an angry article on facebook or to sign a petition than to do what it is that we really MUST do next. We have to build a movement from the ground up that takes power back and makes it impossible for austerity to take effect. As Cat and others have said, we must make this country ungovernable.

So where do we start? Well despite the amazing movement we’ve already built with RIC and across the radical left and trade union movement, we’re not winning yet. But I want to show you that it’s possible.

I have three examples from history that I think have lessons for us. This may be the only time you hear someone talking about the Black Panthers in the same breath as the Battle of George Square but here goes…

In the 1960s, The Black Panthers aimed for what they called ‘survival pending revolution’ – they wanted a revolution in race relations but they recognised they had to start by building a movement for the very survival of black people across America. So they started mutual aid programmes like free breakfasts including for school children. These programmes sprung up all over the country, connecting people and empowering them. Though it was accused of being a Bolshevik plot, it was in many ways a homemade welfare state. And these programmes were so successful that the free breakfast programme for children was later adopted by the federal government.

Our time calls for that same solidarity with one another, but both with those affected by austerity here at home and those around the world. It’s about standing up for the disabled, the unemployed, the working poor, the single parents wherever they are attacked and persecuted. But we must also have solidarity with the single mothers from northern African nations fleeing both persecution and the effects of climate change who our governments would rather allow to drown in the Mediterranean than help.

The second example I want to give you is that of the Battle of George Square in 1919 – it started as a strike in favour of a shorter working week and against changes brought in to the shipbuilders’ terms and conditions, all against a backdrop of huge unemployment after the war. It quickly escalated into a mass movement involving 60,000 protesters but police violence led to the UK Government sending tanks onto the streets to quell what they feared was a Bolshevik uprising – it was the biggest street battle since the radical war of 1820. The issue at the heart of it was jobs, hours, pay and conditions – but it mobilised tens of thousands who stood side by side with one another, whether they were directly effected or not. The men who led that action went on to become some of the first labour politicians. How times have changed.

Too often we worry that campaigning on a single issue (like the working week) won’t get support from others. To get a movement that really gets the government worried like the George Square battles did, we need to be ready to defend one another and to come out for a whole bunch of different interconnected causes. we need organising networks that allow that to happen quickly and easily.

The third example is that of the women’s suffrage movement.  We’ve all heard of the suffragettes and their battle for votes for women. They’re famous for direct action like chaining themselves to the railings outside the commons and of course for jumping in front of the kings horse – an act that cost Emily Davison her life. But we hear far less about the Suffragists who, for decades, lobbied parliament, wrote letters and articulated the case for votes for women.

I believe though that it was the combination of these two groups of women that really won that battle – the shocking direct action combined with the reasoned arguments and patient groundwork made it impossible for the government of the day to do anything other than give women the vote.

So these movements were all successful in one way or another and prove that it IS possible to overcome what seems completely impossible. But I think that for many people in my generation, born in the midst of the miners strike, Chernobyl and the rise of neoliberalism, these examples feel really distant. We might feel like that was then, this is now. That our generation doesn’t have the same passion and skills to change the world as those who came before. That the task is just too hard in the face of a right wing media and the 1% who hold more power and wealth than ever before. To anyone who feels that way – we must understand that that is exactly what they want. That is how the system is designed. They are absolutely bricking it at the idea that we might wake up and realise our own power.

I just want to leave you with a couple of examples of people of my generation who are doing just that. The climate activists in the states who have fought and won against fracking in several states. The fast food workers around the world who demanded and won a rise in the minimum wage. And closer to home, the students who occupied Edinburgh University until they agreed to start taking their money out of fossil fuels and arms.

So yes – austerity is debilitating, but it’s designed to make us feel that way. If we’re to win, we must realise our own power and use it.

So go out and make those who would take away our rights, our jobs and our opportunities to defend them – feel as powerless as austerity makes us feel now. Make them fear us, because then we’ll know we’ve won.

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