The Power of Protest?

Dublin, 2003

Almost exactly twenty years ago, I took part in a protest march which, according to The Guardian, brought Dublin to a complete halt. The demonstration was part of the international anti-war movement designed to bring pressure to bear on those seeking military action against Iraq. Globally, an estimated thirty six million people took to the street. The march in Rome attracted well over three million participants though in Dublin, we numbered a more modest 40,000. For some reason or other, I walked with the Irish Writers’ Association, a couple of steps behind the celebrated author Roddy Doyle. The camaraderie was enjoyable and it felt a little thrilling to be part of the movement. In Parnell Square, the brilliant Irish songwriter Christy Moore was strumming his guitar and, at the bottom of Dame Street, Shane MacGowan staggered on stage to deliver an incoherent and expletive ridden riposte to Blair and Bush. His words were accompanied by explosive cheers from the crowd. Celebrities, students and ordinary Dubliners all mingled in an atmosphere that was almost party-like. 

Richard Boyd Barrett, head of the Irish anti-war movement, said the unprecedented size of the rally would force the government to listen. ‘They cannot ignore what has taken place in Dublin. This is the people saying that enough is enough, we want the US military out of Ireland and we don’t want this evil war.’

Honestly, it felt great to be ‘doing something’ and to be ‘taking a stand’ rather than sitting at home impotently. Naively, I think we felt that our collective voice would be heard and that America and the UK would pull back from conflict. Of course, history has demonstrated the absolute folly of our belief. The ensuing war and insurgency resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians. Military families in the UK and US were left to mourn the loss of loved ones, and the central justificatory premise of the conflict, the supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction, was nothing more than an illusion based on the findings of a dodgy dossier. However, the point of this blog is not to offer a critique of US foreign policy or to try and unpick the complicated context within which decisions were made post 9/11. Instead, I have been reflecting upon the potential power of protest and the growing number of individuals who perceive themselves to be activists. 

Public protest, the right to take to the streets, is a fundamental aspect of any democratic society. Much of value has been achieved by the courage of those who have stood up in defiance of authoritarian regimes. One thinks of the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s. Similarly, one reflects upon the monumental impact of the demonstrations that took place after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu and much more besides would not have occurred without protest. The actions of the suffragettes were instrumental in achieving emancipation and it is doubtful whether the 1918 Representation of the People Act would have been passed without their commitment to direct action. The Stonewall Riots represented an important moment in the history of New York City but, more importantly, they inspired a generation of young people to fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Protest can be extraordinarily powerful in the moment. 

However, there are times when protest may not be the most effective mechanism for achieving change. Supergluing yourself to the M25 or spraying soup at a priceless work of art may constitute a self-indulgent form of exhibitionism that achieves nothing other than irritation and disdain. Such gestures may ‘feel good’ but they are pretty futile in the great scheme of things. Emerging economies in Asia and South America are unlikely to give up their reliance on carbon fuels because Jemima won’t come down from the tree she climbed somewhere in Chipping Norton in order to raise ‘awareness’ of the damage we are doing to our planet. 

The very first time I became aware that ‘protesting’ was an activity was when we drove past Greenham Common at some point in the early to mid 1980s. Looking out of the car window, I could see women huddled around a brazier. I remember being fascinated by their colourful clothes and slightly ‘alternative’ appearance. Of course, I was far too young to understand anything about the BGM-109G Gryphon Ground Launched Cruise Missiles that were deployed at the site but the imagery of protest made a vivid and exciting impression.

Protest is an important political tool but it has its limitations. Should we be teaching activism in schools? Perhaps, but the most pressing problems facing mankind will not be solved through protest alone. China and South America will not eschew carbon fuel until there are cheaper and greener alternatives. After all, it is perfectly reasonable for countries to make decisions that best serve the interests of their own citizens. Common sense dictates that economic growth cannot and should not be the sole determinant of a government’s policy. However our electoral system favours instant gratification rather than paradise postponed. It courts sentiment rather than appealing to logic. 

Peace protesters holding hands encircling the perimeter fence of RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire.

It is our responsibility to ensure that children are politically literate. From a historical perspective, they should understand that political and social change has often been achieved through collective action. However, the sort of change that we need in order to address the environmental catastrophe that we currently face will not be achieved with placards and self-righteous moralising. It will be achieved through the creativity and industry of those who dedicate themselves to harnessing sustainable sources of energy for the common good. Our salvation will be attributable to those who ‘do’ rather than those who admonish others to ‘do’. 

There will be a gravitational shift in attitudes when the adoption of green policies makes real economic sense. Successful green economies prioritise creativity and value technical acumen.It is within the realm of science that we should seek solutions. Weaning countries off their addiction to carbon fuels requires ingenuity, understanding and credible alternatives. As educators, it is our responsibility to ensure that our children possess the moral courage to stand up for their beliefs whilst recognising that meaningful change requires an investment of time, energy and skill which often constitutes a lifelong commitment. 

Of course, children do not need to make a choice between activism and such a commitment but they should recognise that protest must be accompanied by a workable solution. There were those who chose to protest against the lockdowns during the pandemic and, doubtless, they had a role to play in the framing of the public discourse. However, the true heroes were to be found working tirelessly in laboratories. Our emancipation was to be found through the lens of a microscope not an angry tweet from Nigel from Newcastle. 

The solutions to global warming will be driven by scientists and so protesting for its own sake or without the accompaniment of meaningful action may be of little consequence. 

There will be instances when moral courage will lead one to protest but it might also provide the intrinsic motivation to dedicate one’s life to addressing the challenges presented by climate change or social injustice.

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School