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In praise of protests, by Dan Kieran

Posted by Tom Howard, 02 February 2011 | 0

<i>In praise of protests</i>, by Dan Kieran



Taken from A Hedonist’s Guide to Life

Dan, author of I Fought The Law, has organised a cricket match for the ‘Ashes’ of the Magna Carta outside the Houses of Parliament, walked 30 miles along the Thames to Downing Street on a freedom pilgrimage, and held an illegal teddy bears’ picnic by Westminster Abbey, all in the name of protest

Protests are good for you. Firstly, it’s shouting therapy, as pent-up tension is exorcised in short, sharp barks. Then there are all those likeminded new friends to be had. But most importantly, protests are good for you because they’re good for your rights. The only way to get what you want is to demand it: “What do we want?! When do we want it?!”

So how to make your voice heard?

First find a cause that makes your blood boil. Happily, for the modern activist there are plenty of gripes to choose from. Not least freedom of speech itself. You can now be arrested for holding a political demonstration outside Parliament unless you have permission from the police. I met a man convicted for holding a banner in Parliament Square that read, “If you do not believe in freedom of speech for people you despise, then you do not believe in it at all.” For the rest of his life, whenever he applies for a job, he will have to answer “yes” to the question, “Do you have a criminal record?” and deal with all the prejudice that that implies.

Or how about the fact that you can now be arrested for doing literally anything at all? The police used to have three crime parameters: there was the non-arrestable offence (cycing on the pavement etc.), the arrestable offence (shop-lifting etc.), and the serious arrestable offence (assault, fraud, burglary, rape etc.). But our government decided that these terms are too confusing for the police so they just made ‘anything’ an arrestable offence instead. Not only that, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, you can be imprisoned without trial – so much for the presumption of innocence.

Then there’s the fact that anyone arrested gets their DNA taken, along with fingerprints and mug shots, regardless of whether they’ve been convicted or not. Britain has the largest DNA database in the world (with five per cent of the population on file; in second place is Austria, hardly a bastion of progressive political opinion, but they only have one per cent of Austrians on theirs). Our database even has samples from over 50,000 children who have never been found guilty. And in Britain we have the highest number of CCTV cameras per person than anywhere else in the world. 1984 meets Brave New World, anyone?

But if that’s too frightening to tackle, there are plenty of daft laws to complain about. Take the Sex Offences Act 2003. This masterful piece of legislation makes it illegal to have sex in a public toilet. So if you were thinking of it, then for goodness sake don’t. Just have sex up against the outside wall of the toilet instead – perfectly fine according to the law.

If you don’t live in the UK then you might not think any of this matters to you. But Britain is the cradle of western democracy. I asked Prasanth Visweswaran, the “criminal” who held that banner, why he was prepared to flout the law. He replied, “Because this is Britain! Britain is supposed to be the gold standard of democracy. It’s more important to fight about it happening here than anywhere else.” Like it or not, if these kinds of policies take hold here, it’s only a matter of time before they spread across the globe.

So with blood duly boiling, it’s time to take to the streets. But how best to fight for your rights? Your audience is your first consideration – what better way to reach millions by making the news? However, some silly publicity stunt is unlikely to have the world’s news networks tripping over you. No, your best chance is by being the side-show at something they’re already covering: offer a bit of excitement during a lull in the sporting/ceremonial/royal action. You need to be both media-friendly (gimmicks, nudity, celebrity names – yes the media is that shallow) and people-friendly, because attracting a crowd fast attracts hype (try bribing bystanders with a tot of brandy, and bring enough for yourself).

Your protest has to be a performance – think sensory overload. There are tried and tested strategies: for instance, the Raging Grannies, radical cheerleading, pretend-handcuffing to railings, die-ins (i.e. fake deaths on pavements; requires liberal use of stage-blood otherwise it can resemble a sleep-in). But nothing tried and tested startles like real shock can, and this is your aim. But don’t for God’s sake get over-excited and turn violent – bad publicity will crush your cause. And do something rather than nothing, because everyone else is far too busy working and shopping to care. And you’d better do it quickly or we’re all screwed.

Content copyright of Dan Kieran /



New Internationalist

Interview with John Pilger

John Pilger has clear views about the duty of journalists. True to form, his latest film pulls no punches. He talks to us on the eve of its release.

NI: What’s The War You Don’t See about?

JP: The film asks: ‘What is the role of the media in rapacious wars like Iraq and Afghanistan? Why do so many journalists beat the drums of war and not challenge the spin and lies of governments? And how are the crimes of war reported and justified when they are our crimes?’ It’s a film about truth and justice.

In the opening sequence, I refer to David Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister during much of the First World War, who had a private chat with the editor of The Guardian, CPScott, at the height of the carnage. ‘If people really knew the truth,’ said Lloyd George, ‘the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.’ My film is about people’s right to know.

It has always seemed odd to me that as journalists we examine people’s professional lives, but not our own. We treasure our myths. Edmund Burke called the press a ‘fourth estate’ that would check the other great institutions of democracy. It was a quintessentially liberal view. It was also romantic nonsense – honourable exceptions aside. Up till the arrival of the corporate press at the turn of the 20th century, newspapers were often fiercely independent and saw themselves as voices of ordinary people. The media – press and broadcasting – has long since become an extension of the established order, and frequently its mouthpiece and valet.

These days, we surely owe it to the public to come clean about the pressures and seductions, crude and subliminal, that subvert our independence. War – the industrial killing of people and the destruction of their society – is the ultimate test. One of my favourite quotations is Claud Cockburn’s: ‘Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.’ I suggest some of us might engrave that on our bathroom mirrors.

What led you to do a film on this theme? Was there a specific trigger for it?

What war does: a child injured in a bomb blast, Peshwar, Pakistan. The bombing was in retaliation for a US drone attack.

The first trigger was the sight of children burned almost to death by Napalm B – which keeps on burning beneath the skin – then finding out that such an atrocity was not an aberration. It was realizing the racism in colonial warfare, and how apologetic reporting perpetuates this.

You’ve said ‘the media is not covering war. It is promoting war.’ Are there any media outlets whose activities have especially shocked or outraged you?

Well, you get crude examples of war promotion on Fox television in the United States. However, Fox has the virtue of leaving us in no doubt where it stands; and that’s true of most of the Murdoch empire. Murdoch himself has said that war is OK. Too bad about the innocents; war is necessary, says the great baron. Certainly, it is necessary for the arms corporations which are a pillar of the US war economy. The more insidious and perhaps more powerful war promoters are in the respectable media, such as the New York Times and the BBC. Two important studies following the invasion of Iraq received little media attention. Cardiff University found that the BBC overwhelmingly promoted the Blair government’s war agenda; and Media Tenor, based in Berlin, found that of the world’s principal broadcasters, the BBC gave just three per cent of its pre-invasion coverage to anti-war voices. Only CBS in the United States was worse. Censorship by omission is, in my view, the most virulent form of warmongering. ‘When the truth is replaced by silence,’ said the Soviet dissident poet Yevtushenko, ‘the silence is a lie.’

Do you think the reporting of war is actually worse now than it was at the beginning of your career? Is the modern ‘embedding’ of journalists a major factor?

It’s not worse, it’s just better organized – though in many respects it’s far less successful. The last British war completely free of state censorship was the Crimea, which produced some of the greatest war reporting of all time: William Howard Russell’s exposé of the disaster of the charge of the Light Brigade. He and his editor at The Times, John Delane, were almost charged with treason for telling the truth. This changed completely during the First World War, when journalists saw their job, wrote Philip Gibbs of the Daily Chronicle, as telling ‘only tales of gallantry’. The modern idea of ‘embedding’ is similar. More than 700 journalists were embedded with US and British forces during the invasion of Iraq. They told good action stories and showed us a little of the obligatory ‘bang-bang’ but they managed to pass over or obscure the truth that the brutal conquest and plunder of a defenceless country was under way. That said, the reporting on the worldwide web was an important antidote; look at Dahr Jamail’s powerful, independent reporting from Fallujah and the independent filmmaking that gave civilians a voice. We show some remarkable examples in The War You Don’t See.

Mikhaela Reid

You have talked about ‘wars of perception’ in which the news media plays a major role. What do you mean by this?

The term belongs to General David Petraeus, the current US commander in Afghanistan, who wrote in the 2006 US Counterinsurgency Manual that what mattered was not so much military superiority as persuading the public at home that you were winning, regardless of the reality. In other words, the public is the true enemy of governments that pursue unpopular colonial wars which can only be ‘won’ if the public is successfully deceived. This owes much to Edward Bernays, who is said to have invented the term ‘public relations’ soon after the First World War. Bernays’ dictum was that the facts didn’t matter as much as the success of ‘false reality’, and that the manipulators of public thinking belonged to an ‘invisible government that is the true ruling power in our country’. Of course, none of this can succeed without the media as its transmitter and amplifier. And these days it hasn’t really succeeded. Some 77 per cent of the British public is opposed to the colonial adventure in Afghanistan, and most were against the invasion of Iraq.

What do you think can be done to improve the coverage of war, so that the public gets a picture of what is really going on?

The truth of war is grotesque. It is trees hanging with the body parts of children. It is people going insane before your eyes.

The answer is: tell the obvious truth; and the truth of war is the grotesque. It is trees hanging with the body parts of children. It is people going insane before your eyes. It is terrified soldiers with their trousers full of shit. It is human damage that runs through countless families: civilians and soldiers. That’s war. The coverage of war should be this eyewitness but it should also try to tell us the why. That means journalists not colluding but investigating. One of the most revealing documents released by Wikileaks was a 2,000-page Ministry of Defence document that equated investigative journalists with terrorists. That reflects the lethal stupidity that runs like a current through the war-making industry. It says they are afraid of the truth.

Should we be giving more space to local reporters who are from the regions where the wars are being fought?

Only if they try to tell the why of a war, not dispense sentimentalized tales about soldiers from local families – which the military relish.

You have also talked about ‘a war against journalism’. What do you mean by this?

Journalism ought to be about telling as much of the truth as possible in the circumstances. And governments can be expected to wage a constant war on truth-tellers, be they whistleblowers or fearless reporters. That’s why the Pentagon recently set up a department to fight ‘cyberwar’. To the military propagandists, cyberspace is unconquered and, worse, populated by mavericks they can’t control. This is only partly true, of course, but there are enough good journalists writing exclusively for the web to justify the war-makers’ alarm.

Do you draw a distinction between the corporate media world of Murdoch, CNN and the BBCand independent media in terms of which stories are told and the ways in which they are told?

Yes, but mostly in style. Look at Andrew Marr’s recent interview with Tony Blair to mark, or celebrate, Blair’s self-serving memoirs. Marr didn’t ask a single probing question about Blair’s record on Iraq and allowed Blair to promote an attack on Iran. That’s not much different from an interview conducted in the Murdoch media, which I doubt would be as compliant. Look at theBBC’s coverage of the day of the invasion of Iraq; it’s an echo chamber: the message is that Blair is vindicated. Fox did the same in America for Bush.

US General Tommy Franks telling it like it isn’t to journalists at Bagran airbase, Afghanistan.

Do you see any glimmers of hope in the way important issues are being discussed in the mass media?

There are some superb reporters in the mainstream – Patrick Cockburn in The Independent has been a most honourable exception in Iraq. Ian Cobain of The Guardian has brilliantly exposed the torture and injustice of the so-called War on Terror.

On the web, there is some exciting new journalism – not to be confused with top-of-the-head blogging. Look at some of the work posted on Tom Feeley’s excellent Information Clearing House and on ZNet. In Britain, Media Lens has broken new ground with the first informed and literate analysis and criticism of the liberal media. This is the new fifth estate.

Is there another issue on which you think the public is currently being massively deceived?

The major deception in Britain today is the political/media consensus that there is an economic crisis requiring a devastation of public finances and people’s lives. If you look back on the coverage of the ‘crash’ in the autumn two years ago, the shock of it forced the media to tell the truth: corrupt banks and an unregulated financial sector were rightly identified as the source of the problem, and that was the news. Within a year, journalists were back ‘on message’ and the assumptions of the media echoed the nonsense of the political élite that ‘we are all in this together’: a deception so gross it insults the nation’s intelligence. Britain is not on the edge of bankruptcy: this is one of the world’s wealthiest economies; the richest 10 per cent control $6,300 billion with an average per household of $6.3 million. An equitable rate of tax would see off the so-called deficit in no time. In any case, the ‘deficit’ is ideological: the product of an almost cultish obsession of central banks and financiers with shifting the wealth of nations to the very top and keeping it there. At the end of the Second World War, Britain was officially bankrupt yet the Labour government created some of the country’s greatest public institutions, such as the National Health Service. None of this would be a mystery to a media that saw itself as an agency of people, not power.

What is the good news?

The good news is that much of direct and indirect propaganda is not working.

The good news is that much of direct and indirect propaganda is not working. As I say, most people oppose colonial wars. There is a critical public intelligence that runs counter to the authority of the media in all its wondrous digital forms. Perhaps people sense the historical moment: that their social democracy is being appropriated by insatiable corporatism, regardless of which party is in power. In many countries – Greece, France, Spain – this is well understood and is being translated into direct action. In Britain, it is still a seed beneath the snow. But that will change; it has to.

John Pilger was interviewed by Vanessa Baird.

The War You Don’t See has its première at the Barbican, London on 7 December and at the Curzon Soho, London on 13 December. It will go to air on ITV on 14 December at 10.35 pm. For further details go to

“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.  No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”

The Sickness Unto Death

“And when the hourglass has run out, the hourglass of temporality, when the noise of secular life has grown silent and its restless or ineffectual activism has come to an end, when everything around you is still, as it is in eternity, then eternity asks you and every individual in these millions and millions about only one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not.”

The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”

“One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs instead of throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?”

According to this non-religious interpretation, Kierkegaard’s main message is that we cannot rely on other people or on the facts of the world to provide us with answers to the most basic moral and philosophical questions. We are the ones who will have to live with our personal decisions. We are the ones who will be accountable to our conscience for our moral choices. We should therefore act according to our own personal convictions; we should do what makes sense to us.

_The Sickness Unto Death_ is a good place to start reading Kierkegaard. It is shorter than most of his works, and provides a good overview of his most important concepts. One such concept is man’s intense desire to understand or somehow obtain proof of the existence of God. Because of our intense fear of death, we are constantly seeking out ways to relieve our doubt concerning the immortality of the soul. Kierkegaard examines this death-drive with remarkable insight, stating that it is in some ways noble, but in other ways is a gross imposition upon God, and a disrespect for God’s privacy. In one passage, Kierkegaard suggests that we seek out reasons to experience despair simply in order to drag God across hot coals; that is, in order for us to reach a satisfactory understanding of the existence and/or goodness of God, we have a tendency to go out of our way to find reasons NOT to believe in God. Sometimes these reasons consist in outward examples of atrocities and widespread acts of destructive evil. Other times our despair is of a more inward form, in which we seek to disprove God because of our own shortcomings in avoiding sin. In other words, if we are evil, and consider ourselves to be abnormally bad sinners, we have a vested interest in disproving God; because of our fear of punishment, the existence of God runs counter to our best interests. On the other side of the spectrum, Kierkegaard portrays the more virtuous type of faith as one that avoids higher levels of understanding. Considering the over-abundance in this world of acts we percieve to be evil, it stands to reason that God does not WANT to be fully understood. On page 98, Kierkegaard states: “Is it such great merit or is it not rather insolence or thoughtlessness to want to comprehend that which does not want to be comprehended?” On p.38 he states: “to believe is indeed to lose the understanding in order to gain God”. All of this is not to say that Kierkegaard is an anti-intellectual or nihilist. Kierkegaard, who once admitted that he “gropes for the tragic in every direction” in a perverse and convoluted desire to “see” God, is just as guilty as anyone of this “imposition” upon God. His intention is simply bringing to light the dynamics of our strange tendencies to unearth the tragic and the role of death and fear in propelling our desire to understand God. Kierkegaard is not judgemental or admonishing in his treatment of these natural human drives towards knowledge; he just wants to enlighten us on why we act the way we do, and what are the inner springs of our creativity and curiosity. The sources of these creative drives do not always present a pretty picture, but Kierkegaard is honest with himself and with the reader in exposing the dark forces underlying our seemingly innocent intellectual curiosity.


Giorgio Agamben. On Security and Terror. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. September 20, 2001.

Today we face extreme and most dangerous developments in the thought of security. In the course of a gradual neutralization of politics and the progressive surrender of traditional tasks of the state, security becomes the basic principle of state activity. What used to be one among several definitive measures of public administration until the first half of the twentieth century, now becomes the sole criterium of political legitimation. The thought of security bears within it an essential risk. A state which has security as its sole task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to become itself terroristic.

We should not forget that the first major organization of terror after the war, the Organisation de l¹Armée Secrète (OAS), was established by a French general, who thought of himself as a patriot, convinced that terrorism was the only answer to the guerrilla phenomenon in Algeria and Indochina. When politics, the way it was understood by theorists of the “science of police” in the eighteenthe century, reduces itself to police, the difference between state and terrorism threatens to disappears. In the end security and terrorism may form a single deadly system, in which they justify and legitimate each othetrs actions.
The risk is not merely the development of a clandestine complicity of opponents, but that the search for security leads to a world civil war which makes all civil coexistence impossible. In the new situation created by the end of the classical form of war between sovereign states it becomes clear that security finds its end in globalization: it implies the idea of a new planetary order which is in truth the worst of all disorders.

But there is another danger. Because they require constant reference to a state of exception, measure of security work towards a growing depoliticization of society. In the long run they are irreconcilable with democracy.

Nothing is more important than a revision of the concept of security as basic principle of state politics. European and American politicians finally have to consider the catastrophic consequences of uncritical general use of this figure of though. It is not that democracies should cease to defend themselves: but maybe the time has come to work towards the prevention of disorder and catastrophe, not merely towards their control. On the contrary, we can say that politics secretly works towards the production of emergencies. It is the task of democratic politics to prevent the development of conditions which lead to hatred, terror, and destruction and not to limits itself to attempts to control them once they have already occurred.

“I have been writing about international terrorism ever since Reagan declared a war on terror in 1981. In doing so, I have kept to the official definitions of “terrorism” in US and British law and in army manuals, all approximately the same. To take one succinct official definition, terrorism is “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature…through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.” Everything I have just described, and a great deal more like it, falls within the category of terror ism, in fact state-directed international terrorism, in the technical sense of US-British law. For exactly that reason, the official definitions are unusable. They fail to make a crucial distinction: the concept of “terrorism” must somehow be crafted to include their terrorism against us, while excluding our terrorism against them.

Suppose that al-Qaeda had been supported by an awesome superpower intent on overthrowing the government of the United States. Suppose that the attack had succeeded: al-Qaeda had bombed the White House, killed the president, and installed a vicious military dictatorship, which killed some 50-100,000 people, brutally tortured 700,000, set up a major center of terror and subversion that carried out assassinations throughout the world and helped establish “National Security States” elsewhere that tortured and murdered with abandon. Suppose further that the dictator brought in economic advisers who within a few years drove the economy to one of the worst disasters in its history while their proud mentors collected Nobel Prizes and received other accolades. That would have been vastly more horrendous even than 9/11.

There were sensible steps that could have been undertaken to achieve that goal. The murderous acts of 9/11were bitterly condemned even within the jihadi movements. One constructive step would have been to isolate al-Qaeda, and unify opposition to it even among those attracted to its project. Nothing of the sort ever seems to have been considered.

With good reason, the hawkish Michael Scheuer, who was in charge of tracking bin Laden for the CIA for many years, concludes that “the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.” The same conclusion was drawn by US Major Matthew Alexander, perhaps the most respected of US interrogators, who elicited the information that to the capture of Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, the head of al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Alexander has only contempt for the harsh interrogation methods demanded by the Bush administration. Like FBI interrogators, he believes that the Rumsfeld-Cheney preference for torture elicits no useful information,in contrast with more humane forms of interrogation that have even succeeded in converting the targets and enlisting them as reliable informants and collaborators.

From hundreds of interrogations, Alexander discovered that many foreign fighters came to Iraq in reaction to the abuses at Guant‡namo and Abu Ghraib, and that they and their domestic allies turned to suicide bombing and other terrorist acts for the same reason. He believes that the use of torture may have led to the death of more US soldiers than the toll of the 9/11 terrorist attack. The most significant revelation in the released Torture Memos is that interrogators were under “relentless pressure” from Cheney and Rumsfeld to resort to harsher methods to find evidence for their fantastic claim that Saddam Hussein was cooperating with al-Qaida.

By the late ’90s, London began to attend to the grievances that lay at the roots of the terror, and to deal with those that were legitimate — as should be done irrespective of terror. Within a few years terror virtually disappeared. I happened to be in Belfast in 1993. It was a war zone. I was there again last fall. There are tensions, but at a level that is barely detectable to a visitor. There are important lessons here. Even without this experience we should know that violence engenders violence, while sympathy and concern cool passions and can evoke cooperation and empathy.


It’s perhaps the biggest threat to the nation’s mental wellbeing, yet it’s freely available on every street – for pennies. The dealers claim it expands the mind and bolsters the intellect: users experience an initial rush of emotion (often euphoria or rage), followed by what they believe is a state of enhanced awareness. Tragically this “awareness” is a delusion. As they grow increasingly detached from reality, heavy users often exhibit impaired decision-making abilities, becoming paranoid, agitated and quick to anger. In extreme cases they’ve even been known to form mobs and attack people. Technically it’s called “a newspaper”, although it’s better known by one of its many “street names”, such as “The Currant Bun” or “The Mail” or “The Grauniad” (see me – Ed).

In its purest form, a newspaper consists of a collection of facts which, in controlled circumstances, can actively improve knowledge. Unfortunately, facts are expensive, so to save costs and drive up sales, unscrupulous dealers often “cut” the basic contents with cheaper material, such as wild opinion, bullshit, empty hysteria, reheated press releases, advertorial padding and photographs of Lady Gaga with her bum hanging out. The hapless user has little or no concept of the toxicity of the end product: they digest the contents in good faith, only to pay the price later when they find themselves raging incoherently in pubs, or – increasingly – on internet messageboards.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against US President Barack Obama, demanding legal basis for America’s deadly drone attacks overseas.

The lawsuit requests essential information on the fatalities of drone strikes and other information essential for judging the legality of using armed drones to carry out targeted killings, the United Press International (UPI) reported.

“The public has a right to know whether the targeted killings being carried out in its name are consistent with international law and with the country’s interests and values,” UPI quoted Jonathan Manes, a legal fellow with the ACLU National Security Project as saying.

“The Obama administration should disclose basic information about the program, including its legal basis and limits, and the civilian casualty toll thus far,” he added.

ACLU is specifically seeking legal information that justify the ‘targeted killings’ of people by the US’s remote-controlled aerial weapons program and unmanned Predator drones.

US drone attacks have so far claimed many civilian lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

n our current armed conflicts, there are two U.S. drone offensives. One is conducted by our armed forces, the other by the CIA. Every day, CIA agents and CIA contractors arm and pilot armed unmanned drones over combat zones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Pakistani tribal areas, to search out and kill Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. In terms of international armed conflict, those CIA agents are, unlike their military counterparts but like the fighters they target, unlawful combatants.

Strikes are back, but unlikely to trouble Gordon Brown

Michael White, Wednesday 10 March 2010 20.17 GMT

Strikes are back in the headlines, though rarely on the front pages as they once routinely were. Is Britain heading back to the future – or at least facing a general election in which union militancy is an issue?

The likely answer is neither, unless the giant Unite union’s bumpy negotiations with BA over cabin crew staff ends up ruining Easter air travel plans. Ditto Bob Crow’s RMT doing the same for Easter train trips – both just before Gordon Brown goes to Buckingham Palace to seek an election.

The BBC website reports all sorts of strikes, threatened and actual. The GM’s engineering staff at British Gas are ballotting over claims of “bullying and customer exploitation”. How many staff? 8,000 – and note that concern for customers. Bus drivers in Wales, university staff in Sussex, BBC staff worried about station closures – the raw statistics tell the story of declining union membership, power and militancy in an increasingly post-industrial state where individualism prevails over social solidarity.

When Margaret Thatcher won her first mandate to “deal with the unions” in 1979, 29.5m working days were lost to strikes, a figure that dwindled to 235,000 in 1997 when Tony Blair moved into No 10. The figures rise and fall: 759,000 in 2008, rapidly falling again in 2009 despite 177,000 postal workers walking out in their modernisation battle with Royal Mail. That dispute was quietly settled this week on what are reasonable terms for the communications union (CWU): 6.9% over three years in return for (touch wood) belatedly embracing more reforms. Yet 80,000 jobs have gone over the decade.

Every case is different. BA and Unite are both stroppy and the union’s aggro level is higher by virtue of an imminent election for general secretary. Unite may be pumping Ashcroftesque millions into Labour’s empty coffers, but Brown’s election comes second. Chances are the non-Labour RMT will cut a deal with the train operators after ritual argy-bargy.

Striking public sector workers from the militant and often volatile Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, lobbying MPs again today, may be an easier target for the Tories. White collar staff, already facing higher pension contributions and older retirement (like everyone else), are resisting tougher redundancy terms. And they know that whoever wins the election is promising to slash thousands of jobs.

The decline of private pensions renders even modest public sector pensions vulnerable. Yet the prospect of a half-decent pension keeps older staff going, as David Cameron found last year when he promised to “sort out” public sector pensions and dipped in the polls.

The idea popularised by the Tory tabloids, that average public sector wages (not the plump cats whose pay Brown froze today) now run ahead of the private sector, fails to explain that its pool of unskilled workers pulls private sector averages down.

A serious blunder by unions, managements or politicians could make an election impact. But not even the Tories seem keen and BA cabin crews are said to read the Daily Mail. Even militancy is more complicated than it was.

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