Working farmers are to lose a significant element of their income. At a time when they are struggling to keep their heads above water, any loss threatens their economic survival, threatens the homes of they and their families. Pain was audible in the voices of those who spoke at the four hundred strong meeting.
The minister listened to with them with sympathy, but was compelled to point out the realities with which he was confronted: a minister from a small country on the edge of Europe, the only power he had was attempts at persuasion and reasoned argument and he acknowledged that the best he could do was to attempt to limit the damage.
Sitting and listening as the three hours of the meeting passed, the Shelton Bar debate came to mind. Attending an Open University summer school in Sussex back in 1989, the final afternoon was a workshop on industrial relations. The case of the closure of the British Steel works at Shelton Bar was the background for a role play exercise. A group of us were cast as workers in the plant, efficient, productive, unable to do anything more to save the plant and so save the jobs. Reading through the script of the role play, there was the realisation that there was nothing that we could do; no form of words that could change the reality of the situation. When it came to our turn, we set aside the script, climbed upon the desks and declared that we were engaged in direct action and that the plant was henceforth under workers’ control. The lecturer smiled, ‘a nice try’, he said, ‘unfortunately direct action doesn’t work’.
He was right, of course. Every effort at direct action has failed, either immediately or a short time afterwards.
Direct action begs an answer to the question in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, ‘Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death?’ People undoubtedly prefer the latter, standing up and shouting does not come readily. But at least in direct action there is a sense of saying, ‘I am a person; I am alive; I have rights; I have dignity!’
To be honest, even the path of direct action is not open to working farmers. The premises where they work are their own, they can hardly achieve anything by sitting and protesting in their own farmyards. It seems that they have not even the power available to the dissidents in Kundera’s novel.
Were I confronted with the situation faced by some of those who spoke, I fear the pain and the anger expressed would have been considerably greater than the softly spoken dissent voiced this evening. Perhaps new ways of protest need to be learned.