Global Policy Forum

As an Old Peace Protester,


By Donald Macintyre

July 24, 2001

There is something rather synthetic about the fuss over the remarks of Peter Hain, the Minister for Europe, about the policing of the Genoa demonstrations last weekend. First, he was unequivocal in condemning "balaclava-clad demonstrators out there ... to bust a skull if they can." Second, most detached observers appear to agree that, to put it mildly, the carabinieri did not help a volatile situation by over-reaction.

Mr Hain was really trying to make a broader point, which was partly to do with why there are summits in the first place. And this is precisely the context in which to see the, as it turned out, tragic events in Genoa. It is necessary to demolish a couple of myths. The first concerns the violent element among the demonstrators themselves.

I've always had a problem feeling romantic about anarchists since they used to try - usually in vain - to turn those marches and sit-down protests organised by CND and the Committee of 100 in the early 1960s into large scale punch-ups, which rather militated against the cause of world peace.

In a candid first-hand diary of Genoa, Noreena Hertz, current guru of the doctrine that modern politics has failed to come up with the answers to the power of transnational corporations, described a conclave of 80 demonstrators onboard the train to north Italy. Ms Hertz confessed to being disturbed by talk of a "jihad" and that the objective appeared to be to break through the security fence, as the most potent symbol of the barriers between haves and have-nots. (My mind went a long way back to a student meeting on the eve of the second big London anti-Vietnam demonstration of 1968 where those of who us who had been arrested at Grosvenor Square six months earlier were equally uneasy to be told by some of our number that the object the following day was to "smash the pigs".)

Writing on the Thursday before the summit, with macabre prescience, Ms Hertz went on: "This movement does not need martyrs but I am scared that with all this frenzy we will get them." Ms Hertz was right about not needing martyrs. It isn't good enough to say that to a cynical media the only way of making your presence felt is through violence. If that was so, NGOs and lobbying organisations would not now be looking for ways of detaching the large peaceful majority of these demonstrators from the violent minority - in some cases by deciding not to turn up at all.

It's true, of course, that if you have the world's television crews showing up to these events en masse - sometimes in numbers which inversely relate to the actual importance of the occasion - violence may be a sure way of getting on the front page. What it isn't - at Genoa any more than at Drumcree - is a means of getting a coherent message over. Which of course worries the anarchists not all. But it does worry those who actually have one to relay. The huge and the entirely peaceful demonstration at the Birmingham G8 summit in 1998 on debt relief became the story. And it did have some influence on the deliberations of the national leaders present.

The second myth, and perhaps the more potentially enduring one, is that summits are simply unnecessary in an age when national leaders could just as well pick up the telephone or e-mail each other. The Putin-Bush meeting could have been in Moscow or Washington.

There are, I think, criticisms to be levelled at the Genoa G8 agenda. The disappointment of responsible NGOs that the health fund didn't involve more or newer money, and that the new Africa partnership initiative isn't better funded is real enough - sharpened perhaps by a tendency among the politicians to hype up rather modest engagements with big, chronic problems, which they should be admitting more frankly they are unable or unwilling to solve with greater speed.

But it's nonsense to suggest that you can do without summits altogether. The last demos were at Gothenburg at an EU summit. And EU summits matter. Deals are done that make a real difference in the world. When Tony Blair goes to an EU summit he knows that he will take part in more raw politics than in the previous six months of Cabinet meetings. And that's not surprising. Some issues - notably trade and the environment - can't be decided other than collectively. You can hardly first complain that Europe is run too much by unelected faceless bureaucrats in the Commission and then lament the fact that the most important decisions are increasingly taken by national leaders accountable to their parliaments and their electorates.

And that's not only true of EU summits. Whatever its deficiencies, the post-Kyoto deal reached yesterday by the world's environment ministers in Bonn (minus the United States) is just such an example. So let's not run away with the idea that the summits are per se an offence against democracy.

This doesn't, however, mean that the summiteers can do nothing to improve the atmosphere in which they meet. The summits have become hugely bloated events, wholly out of tune with the 21st-century zeitgeist, in which too many host countries vie with each other to lay on the best five-course banquets, and in which many of the delegations, not to mention the limousines, are much too large.

There are too many show-off photo-events (like the cringeworthy Western hootenanny at Denver) and much too little real transparency. The ghastly jargon of summitry, and for that matter of the whole EU (as pointed out in an impressively thoughtful speech last week, by, as it happens, Mr Hain), militates woefully against comprehension and interest on the part of electorates. And there is a powerful case for bringing the NGOs into direct dialogue with the summiteers, as the UN General Assembly and its satellite organisations in Geneva regularly manage to do.

Nor can the national leaders, the British Prime Minister included, wholly ignore the constraints they themselves put on domestic discourse about the issues that preoccupy peaceful demonstrators and summiteers. This is partly a matter of falling turnout and conventional political engagement. It is partly about the real problems of giving necessary institutions, which are larger than the nation state, a real democratic legitimacy. But it's also about the very limited extent to which - say - the environment or missile defence or even Europe itself is allowed to be the stuff of domestic electoral debate. To that extent, at least, there is a democratic deficit.

But that doesn't mean that we should jump to the seductive conclusion that what happened in Genoa is somehow the new politics, about to topple the old order. You can't castigate lorry drivers for holding a national government to ransom over fuel prices and then condone the violent protests that took place last weekend. To that extent Mr Blair is right about democracy being "turned on its head".

But if that's one lesson of Genoa the other is this: to prevent itself being turned so easily on its head democracy needs to plant its feet a little more firmly on the ground.

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