It was a moment that the Financial Times last week suggested might have been ‘Protest’s Last Stand‘. Ten years ago today, 15th February 2003, more than a million people took to the streets of London to protest against the planned war in Iraq. There was a parallel demonstration in Dublin that day in which more than a 100,000 people marched – an extraordinary turnout in a country of four million people where Irish neutrality ensured no troops would be going to the Gulf.
The Financial Times article comments,
. . . it looked for a moment as if the march might be a turning point. Even if it didn’t achieve its objective, could it give direct action a new visibility, a new force and a new demographic?
It didn’t, most seem to agree, happen like that. A protest born out of disaffection with the ordinary political process out of a growing reluctance to trust representative democracy to do its work representing us – may actually have ended up creating yet greater disaffection. It escaped nobody’s attention, after all, that the Stop the War march failed in its objective.
Perhaps the failure owed much to a missing generation among the protesters. The absence of a major demographic group became obvious in a ‘Make Poverty History’ march in Dublin two years later, perhaps it was noticeable in 2003 and we just had not seen it. Twenty thousand people marched on a Thursday night in June – a crowd equivalent to three hundred thousand people appearing from nowhere to march in London on a weeknight.
As one might have expected, 75% of those taking part in that march had been in their teens and twenties. In the Celtic Tiger years, in a society that was being condemned for being be marked by indifference to neighbours and by avarice, greed and envy, there were at least 15,000 younger people looking for a different world.
What was noticeable that night was that after the teens and twenties, the next age group of people were those in their fifties or sixties, the veterans of the radicalism of the 1960s. Where were the missing generation?
The people missing, the thirty and forty year olds, were the generation that had grown up through the years when neo-liberalism cast a giant shadow; when free market economics, where the market place determined everything, and where all that mattered was acquiring as much as possible. It is the attitude of the missing generation that has prevailed.
Writing here the week after the 2005 march, I naively said, ‘Thursday showed that there is a new generation rising and that a different world is possible’. Yet it was an end, rather than a beginning. A decade on, the idea that 100,000 people would take to the streets of Dublin, to march against something that directly affected neither them nor their country, sounds strange. Yes, there are still mass marches, but they are about defending sectoral interests, not about international principles.
One of those interviewed by the Financial Times was asked if she had been to any demonstrations since, ‘Let me think’, she says. ‘No’.
What changed? Maybe the Sixties idealists grew old; maybe the teens and twenties grew cynical; maybe we mistook social media, including writing blogs, for real action.