WASHINGTON — Britain split along three rift lines last week and it’s hard to see where they might meet again. Perhaps only an Anglo-American attack on Iraq could unite the nation against such mind-boggling folly and terrifying, costly megalomania.
One part of Britain paraded through the unfamiliar streets of London on Sept. 22. This was the newly formed Countryside Alliance, which claimed 500,000 people walked behind its banners for “Liberty and Livelihood” — the largest demonstration in London in living memory. The marchers all had an interest in “rural issues.”
Its origin was the protest of the rural elite against the threat to ban fox-hunting. Despite the clamor about fox-hunting being an essential part of rural life, I know, having been raised in the country, that many rural people loathe and excoriate fox hunters, whose horses trample their fences, turn rural paths into muddy bogs and ride roughshod over their fields. Most people in the British countryside no longer keep chickens, ducks or any small furry beasts that might tempt a fox, so the latter are not seen as a great menace.
In fact, the great threat to rural livelihood comes from city commuters who have bought up rural houses at inflated prices, do not patronize the shrinking number of local shops or medical services and generally put so little money into the villages they have moved into that those villages dwindle and die. It is the inability of local or national governments to reverse this demographic change that threatens their livelihood and causes conservative country-dwellers to blame the Labour government for putting more effort and money into regenerating decaying city centers than into the more charming, but just as impoverished, countryside.
The potential class split between the rich fox hunters and the rural poor prompted the wily leadership of the Countryside Alliance to produce the two-headed slogan for their march: Liberty, for the fox hunters (if not the foxes), and Livelihood, for those who can see their living disappearing under the great forces of globalization and the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (not to mention the local difficulties of mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease.)
All of them are firmly convinced that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government in particular, but governments in general, have seen country dwellers as somehow outside the body politic. They think they have been ignored, as peaceable folk, in favor of the more powerful, vociferous and visible urban lobbies. Or, according to the bizarre claim from Prince Charles, in a letter leaked to the press last week, people in the countryside suffer more discrimination and neglect than blacks or gays. What world is he living in, we urban dwellers ask, knowing it is not ours.
At the end of the same week, on Sept. 28, there was — organizers claim — the biggest antiwar demonstration seen in Britain for many decades, and perhaps ever. Here estimates of numbers varied. The police estimated 150,000 people participated in the peace demonstration, while organizers claimed a figure of 300,000. Whatever, it was a big march.
It was also probably the most diverse crowd ever assembled behind the same cause: “Don’t Attack Iraq.” There were the usual suspects, the veterans of countless leftwing causes and peace campaigns, a fairly wide net that embraces peaceful Christian Quakers, Buddhists and political groups from the left that oppose all forms of British militarism or imperialism.
Among them were a few of the same anathemas as in the Countryside Alliance demonstration. Blair — or U.S. President George W. Bush’s poodle as he was ridiculed everywhere — was named with Bush as the main threat to world peace. Both marches also identified the so-called global free market as a threat to the freedoms and ways of life of small communities, though it was the antiwar demonstration that painted this on placards, coming, as it did, from a tradition of attacking international capitalism.
The new element in the antiwar demonstration came from the orange banners and garbed and veiled women of the Muslim Alliance. Their principal chant was the demand for “Freedom for Palestine,” but there were also more radical, or “fundamentalist,” Islamist groups calling for the establishment of an Islamic state — though it’s unclear whether this means a spiritual state of being, or a political and institutional entity.
The target of their fervor was more the “corrupt” rulers of Muslim countries than Bush and Blair. It was from their lips, so conservative on matters of dress and family, that the most radical words came about the rich gaining their wealth by starving the poor.
And the third segment in this three-way split is made up of the large majority that did not join either mass assembly of protest. This is the silent majority, whom both U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did so much to recruit and present in the 1980s as “decent, hardworking folk” exploited by the noisy, overly political few.
Probably many of them have some sympathy with all the causes being paraded down Whitehall at either end of the week. But most now live and work in places that the frail organizations of protest no longer reach. The decline of trade unions, the shriveling of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the dissipation of the women’s liberation movement into individual homes and public orthodoxy, the death of the Communist Party, the taming of local Labour parties, as well as the transformation of all rural produce into cellophane packets on supermarket shelves, have combined to flatten the political energy of ordinary life — civil society, as we now call it.
It is likely that the one issue on which all these three segments of British society could agree is that whatever they say, New Labour will ignore them. As Bush says, it’s called strong leadership.
I think Labour will heed the voices. The consistent opinion polls showing, at least, that a growing majority of people in Britain are opposed to any military intervention in Iraq without full U.N. approval means New Labour will be destroyed if any messy or deadly attack against Iraq is pursued by Britain and the United States alone. Blair cannot rely on the indifference of the silent majority for ever.
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