On Sunday I was cycling briskly along the river past Westminster when I was stopped in my tracks by a cavalcade of whistles, drums and people in fancy dress. Sadly there were no horses that I could see. This had two immediate effects - a two minute spectacle that was really quite entertaining and then, far, far better, the opportunity to cycle along the river from Westminster pretty much to Tower Bridge without so much as a car on my side of the road.
The cavalcade was, I gather, in protest against NHS cuts. The organisers say some 7,000 people turned out in support (um, protest I mean). Apparently this was a lower than expected turnout because all the senior people in the unions had expected an election to be called on November 1st and so had put plans for the protest on hold. I'm wondering how many other things have been ahem, blamed on the lack of an election.
I was on my way to the Tate Modern to see "Shibboleth", Doris Salcedo's new installation. Or, perhaps more accurately, de-installation. Somehow, Doris or someone Doris knows with a succession of power drills of varying sizes has drilled a long, parallel sided crack from one end of the Turbine Hall to the other. Not only that, but the sides of the crack give the impression that the rock was torn apart - with overlapping edges and bumps sticking out and recessing on each side. It really is a stunning "thing" to look at - and there were thousands there on Saturday, looking, touching, poking and prodding. You can imagine the Tate Board of Directors reacting to her pitch: "So you want to cut a hole in our floor?";"No, not a hole exactly - a crack, from one end to the other"; "A crack? Let me just think about that for a second". How on earth she got away with that I have no idea - but the result is quite brilliant. You'll spend more time trying to figure out how it was done than the average person spends solving the 43 billion billion combinations of a Rubik's Cube. A Shibboleth, by the by, is something - usually liguisitic I think - that identifies those from one region/country/place from another (check the Book of Judges for the detail on how this can get abused). These days it is just as much used to distinguish between those from the new wave of doing something versus the old wave.
As I cycled down the empty Embankment, en route to the Tate, I wondered about the efficacy of such demonstrations. Sure, people come from all over and parade through the streets of London, making a lot of noise and having a lot of fun (several looked to be having too much fun and having stopped off at the Walkabout for more than a few drinks were lying, in full regalia, in the street looking decidedly the worse for wear), waving placards and so on. London stops for them, as it should - nothing here about people not having a right to protest (I walk past Brian Haw's modern day Greenham Common most days of the week and absolutely believe he should be allowed to do what he does, although I wasn't so keen on all the extra tents recently).
But what does it accomplish? A brief moment in the news - so little news coverage that I was forced to swipe the image above from the daily star website (and I am grateful for that - the image links to the original page). An ephemeral memory for most who saw it. A hangover for some the next day? Shared war stories for those who march to talk to their colleagues back at at work? I still remember the day, aged 9, that I marched for "Save the Seal." Fat lot of good it appears to have done.
There are almost no mainstream news stories about the NHS rally that I can find (using simple search terms "save NHS", "NHS London 3rd November 2007" and so on. Lots of local news stories from the various unions that sent people though.
And then we have our online equivalent - the petitions page:
- 1.7 million people signed the virtual petition against road pricing
- 223,000 have signed one asking that the Red Arrows be able to fly at the Olympics (who knew they wouldn't?)
- 69,000 want student loan repayments to be deducted monthly not annually (that sounds sensible - I might sign up myself)
- Since Gordon Brown mentioned the petition site in his conference speech, 22,000 have signed up requesting that Jeremy Clarkson be made PM.
These online "rallies" (hardly cavalcades I suppose) seem to attract greater support - the barriers to presence are far lower of course - and they get returning media coverage. On all but the busiest news day there is almost always a story about one petition or another and, as the Daily Mail proved with their campaign against Road Pricing, real "foot" traffic can be attracted very quickly.
Have we arrived at a point where an online rally is a better, more effective and more likely to succeed vehicle than a colourful, noisy demonstration in the centre of London?
When the banks started to change the charges made on student accounts, it was an online group on Facebook that caused them to change their policy again. If Road Pricing doesn't make it, could it have been the 1.7 million e-signatures that made the case stick?
Or will we still hold rallies in real life, as opposed to the second, virtual life, because they're just more fun even if they accomplish less? Is the nature of protest now distinguishable by the shibboleth of whether you protest online or offline?