Occupy Edinburgh

The nascent ‘occupy’ movement currently spreading around the Western world is often traduced for lacking a clear, identifiable goal or a soundbite-sized rallying point. Indeed at one point during the Occupy Edinburgh demo in St Andrew’s Square Saturday afternoon – while a Mohawked punk in leathers was excoriating the coalition government in London – I overheard two policemen chatting. ‘What are they protesting about?’ asked one. ‘Life in general, I think,’ replied his colleague.

I spent around three and a half hours on St Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh yesterday and what follows is a (very) brief reflection on what I saw, the people I met, and the things I heard on the square. It’s all rather inchoate but one thing, to me, seems certain: the occupy protest is much more than a vacuous rejection of politics and political life.

A large number of the 200-odd people on St Andrew’s Square were old stagers from the trade union movement or leftist political parties, but just as many were unaffiliated, concerned citizens angry at an economic system that seems to benefit the status quo and a party political structure is aloof, unresponsive and in hock to big business. I met a university Maths lecturer who spoke of his anger that government is doing little to address falling living standards (since the mid-1970s there has been no increase in real term income for most in the West). Elsewhere a Spanish student living in Edinburgh came because she is worried about her own future, both in Spain and in the UK.

‘We are the 99%’ has become the tagline of the occupy protests and, on everything from t-shirts to banners, it was out in force on St Andrew’s Square. A Canadian couple, their young child in tow, explained that they decided to join the protest because of the widening gap between rich and poor, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Vast swathes of the working population have seen their incomes and opportunities shrink – and their quality of life decrease markedly – the occupy protests c be a vehicle for real change. Last night a number of hardy souls are camped out on St Andrew’s Square after a peaceful day’s protest (I left the square in the afternoon, before a march through the city, but from what I saw protesters were good natured and decidedly peaceful).

The evidence from New York and elsewhere is that creating a peaceful physical space in which everyone has a right to voice an opinion is key. There were signs of this on St Andrew’s Square, although hopefully the ideological spiels from the microphone will be replaced with logistics in time. Also, organisers might consider removing political slogans and party paraphernalia – as has been done in Dublin and elsewhere. The copies of left-wing newspapers and party flags alienate more of the 99% than they attract. Homemade banners and humorous slogans are a much more effective tactic.

Far from being a flaw, however, the lack of an easily articulated goal looks like a necessary first step in building a broader movement. As the growing numbers protesting around the world attests, anger at the economic status quo and rising inequality is anything but a minority concern.