By Charlotte Du Cann
"What was that phrase?" asked the student. “United we stand...”
“Divided we fall,” we chorused.
There were a thousand of us at least standing beside the bandstand in Chapelfield Gardens, stamping our feet against the bitter cold. The last time I stood here it was a sunny autumn day, and I was listening to a song by Seize the Day dedicated to the striking wind turbine workers on the Isle of Wight. In 2009 at a Zero Carbon concert this had struck me as unusual. Most of the protest songs were about the environment or the war. Now there’s a change of mood in the wintry air. The Great Norfolk Anti-Cuts Demo in Norwich on Saturday marked a social shift, as hundreds of marches and demonstrations break out in Britain’s cities and occupations take place in 30 universities across the country, creating a new ferment and new alliances.
The shock tactics of the cuts are a standard part of an economic doctrine that is being administered for the second time in Britain. The present Coalition cabinet have been called the Children of Thatcher and the dismantling of the welfare state is a hallmark of the Friedman School of Economics, widely embraced by the last Conservative government - a deliberate break-up of unionised workforce, privatisation of the public sector and deregulation of the markets to create a society of extreme wealth for the few, corporate control and a vast and voiceless underclass.
Only these present cuts are happening in a very different climate in a very different decade. This is no longer the boomtime of the 80s when Britain was able to export oil and gas and the majority of the population could find credit to go on a shopping spree. There is economic collapse in Europe, an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, 388PPM of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and perhaps more crucially a growing sector of people throughout Britain waking up to the fact that life is not the fossil-fuelled consumer dream they were once promised.
The key strategy in the shock doctrine is to keep people separated and unable to communicate. To make changes so quickly and brutally across the board that it is hard to grasp what is happening and retaliate. Confused, isolated and afraid, people give up. However after decades of individualism, different sections of society that have been out of touch with each other are beginning to connect up. I’m walking alongside the fiery-red banner of the Communication Workers, as we swing up Gentleman’s Walk, past the merry-go-round outside the Forum. I’m remembering the last time I joined a march with union banners was in Birmingham in 1976 when I was a student. Can it be that long ago? The Saturday shoppers stop and stare. But they are not divided as once they might have been. As we walk past the fire station the firemen come out and cheer.
We’re linking up. We’re joining up the facts in our minds and deciding how to act. We're meeting up as individuals and as groups and coming out of our houses. When this column was cut by the EDP after six years, the six writers did not go their separate ways. We decided to make the OneWorldColumn blog a focal point for all the activities that were taking part in the region; to start a conversation that would not only bring the organisations and disciplines we represented together (Green Party, Greenpeace, the peace movement, Transition movement, Campaign against Climate Change, international development), but to unify all the different strands within the local progressive community.
On the bandstand speakers from the public sector unions, the universities and the NGOs were advocating a clear alternative to the cuts that include scrapping Trident, stopping tax evasion, curbing banker’s bonuses, bringing troops home, introducing financial levies and creating a million green jobs and apprenticeships that would enable us to downshift into a low-carbon economy.
Cath Elliot, a Guardian blogger, is talking about the huge rise in unemployment for women, how equality has now been dubbed “a dirty word” (You can find her speech on the blog Too Much To Say For Myself). We all know that the 18 millionaires who are in the cabinet are not all in this together with us. That in the choice between people’s welfare or bankers' profit, the latter has been taken. And that knowledge brings a certain sobriety and solidarity within the crowd. None of us seem confused or afraid. I am standing next to a group of deaf people who are watching the speeches being signed by a woman in a white wool hat. “We’ve never had it so bad.” said the slogan.
The disabled and those who care for them will perhaps fare the hardest in these cuts. Crucial grants and benefits that make people able to live independent lives as human beings are being taken away. Many are being forced into unsuitable low-paid work. In another era I might not have been able to talk with them. Now we have something in common. We are realising that even though we face a global economic recession, we can come together, reorganise and redistribute amongst ourselves. And in a time of structural collapse, coherence and communication are perhaps the most vital things we can share.
Oh, the big society is happening all right. But it may not be the one the Government is banking on.