UK protesters are more interested in shopping than politics

It seems that when Britain's workers go on strike, the retail industry benefits. Perhaps the government should encourage more industrial action.

For those of us in the UK, the recent events of the Arab uprisings have made for curious viewing. By nature Britons are somewhat reticent about showing emotions in public, and the sight on our TV screens of passionate public demonstrations involving many millions of individuals is an alien concept.

It was a former prime minister, Arthur Balfour, who famously summed up the national temperament when he said: "Nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all."

Even during the last great public demonstration in London, the 2003 march to protest against the coalition invasion of Iraq, the party of demonstrators I was with could barely manage more than 1,000 metres without having to pop in to the nearest cafe for a fortifying cup of hot chocolate and a blueberry muffin. It was all very British.

But all that was going to change last Wednesday (or so we were promised) after the trade union movement organised a day of civil action to protest against the savage austerities being meted out to public sector employees.

The protest and strike involving council employees, civil servants, health employees, dinner ladies, schoolteachers and many more besides was billed as the biggest popular demonstration for three decades. As a result the country was certain to grind to a halt. Ports would be shut, and with insufficient customs officers at Heathrow Airport, delays of up to 12 hours at immigration were expected. (In other words, it would take travellers longer to get through passport control than to cross the Atlantic).

By coincidence I had an appointment at my local hospital that day. "Don't expect to get seen," a neighbour warned me. "There'll be no nurses, no orderlies, and even if you can get through the picket lines you'll be there for hours, so take a flask and some sandwiches." I thus set out better equipped for an assault on the South Pole than for a routine blood test.

In fact, my journey was somewhat anticlimactic. I arrived to find the hospital functioning smoothly, although there was a line of demonstrators gathered at the front entrance. But they were barely sufficient in number to fill a telephone booth.

Within 30 minutes I'd been registered, assessed, given my restorative biscuit and cup of tea, and sent home again. Hardly the stuff of class warfare.

The reason so many employees ignored the call to arms and chose to work was obvious. Whatever their personal views, a day's lost pay is just too high a price for many people struggling to make ends meet in these difficult times.

But where were the millions more who had chosen to withdraw their labour? Marching on Whitehall? Demonstrating in Hyde Park? Blockading the runways at Heathrow?

Well, now the truth can be told. They all went shopping.

Statistics from high-street retailers the following morning showed that employees who had taken the day off to protest had decided to indulge in a little retail therapy rather than man the barricades. Retailers up and down the country reported record sales, with some of the larger outlets showing a 40 per cent increase in sales.

Not surprisingly, the success (or failure) of the "day of action" has been fiercely disputed by the warring factions, with unions hailing it as an "historic success", and Prime Minister David Cameron terming it "a damp squib".

But while the reality is probably somewhere between the two, this merely reinforces just how difficult it is to get the Brits to turn out in force to flex their collective political muscles. Show us footage of someone kicking a defenceless puppy or putting a cat into a wheelie bin, and you will have us out on the streets en masse protesting for the return of the death penalty for the miscreant: but politics has long since lost its power to stir our emotions.

Yet there may be a silver lining to all this apathy about our future. On the evidence of last Wednesday, all that Mr Cameron's government has to do to kick-start our sluggish economy is ensure that mandatory strike days are drafted into every employee's contract from now on. Many more days of frenetic spending like the one we have just seen and we will all soon be lighting cigars with £10 notes once more.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

Published: December 4, 2011 04:00 AM


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