Fight Back! A radical primer from Britain's winter of discontent

Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest collects 340-some pages' worth of the best writing on the wave of anti-cut demonstrations that have rocked Britain this winter; writing from radicals and reformers, students and members of the UKUncut movement -- a discussion ranging from philosophy to strategy and tactics. It's a fascinating, Creative Commons licensed download, with a print edition to follow.

Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest (Thanks, @PennyRed!)


  1. A wise friend once said that there can never be an “external revolution”. The real revolution will be an internal one; where we put down our perceived differences and understand that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. He has put 100 years on the clock :)

  2. A very interesting read (though I have only scan read it so far), covering all the recent protests in the UK.

    My one observation is that behind all of this anti-cut activism is a seemingly huge lack of constructive, positive vision.

    The UK has gross funded and unfunded debts of £4.3trillion. Our annual budget deficit is £150bn.

    The coalitions proposed cuts will try to balance the budget at the end of parliament in 2014/15, so by then we will have ADDED at least another £400bn to the debt… and that is if the coalition are ‘successful’.

    Add into this a growing realisation that the western paradigm is fundamentally flawed. We cannot have infinite growth (credit, energy, food, population) in a finite environment. We also need to understand that Growth does not equal Prosperity.

    So, protest all you like about fairness. But unless you have some proactive options to move humanity forward then all you are doing is generating a lot of heat, but no light.

    PS Options may or may not include:

    Fight towards something…

  3. I think JimDiGritz hits the nail on the head. All the protests seem to come from a sense of entitlement, with no coherent strategy or alternative to the cuts.

    Here’s the crux of it: There is no more money. There needs to be a serious re-balance and it needs to happen soon. Really all that can be discussed is how the cuts are spread. There *is no case* for business as usual, which if taken as a whole, the protests seem to imply. This argument holds independently of whether one thinks the public sector should be reduced as a matter of course.

    All the hot air amounts to people pleading special cases, which is exposes a disconnect between the different protests – this *is* (approximately) a zero sum game (any negative difference is just borrowing against the future).

    All that said, I too share the anger at how we got in the mess (well, the short term trigger anyway). But being annoyed doesn’t change the fundamental point that we have no more cash.

    1. Saying there is no money is to simple, given that money is basically a counter for past effort and future promises.

      1. Uhm, no, money is a proxy for any scarce resource in general (which includes work). Would it have helped if I’d said: We have insufficient scarce resource and we’ve only been managing to have more scarce resource than we’ve been creating for ourself for the last few years because other people have been giving us their scarce resource.

        The economy grows because we can make resources less scarce for the same effort (or it takes less effort to produce the same scarce resource).

        Now, we can always refuse to pay the debt, but my understanding is that the general consensus is that this results in bad things happening.

        1. For starters many pension funds would go down the drain since they are backed by government debt.

          The pound would devaluate even more (it is funny, the Pound has devaluated 20% in 4 years: but nobody in the UK seems to care, despite this being the international financial community telling you “we don’t trust you, put your house in order!”) , perhaps to the point of becoming worthless (the Euro is not fearing much better mind you, neither is the dollar) and starting round of high inflation, perhaps hyperinflation of a kind not seen in Europe since the great depression

          I mean, it is not like we don’t know what happens, there are recent examples:

        2. Scarce only really apply when one is talking about something that needs to be dug out of the ground and can not be recycled once used. Beyond that things are cyclical. Labor gets wages gets taxed gets labor and around it goes. In this day and age, labor is anything but scarce.

    2. There is an alternative to massive cuts that destroy our public institutions that took decades to build up and bring misery to the average citizen. Make the people who caused this problem pay for it.

      Okay, the banks can’t pay all of it, but at the moment they are not paying very much at all. The argument that the debt is in the trillions is a straw man – cuts will work and get things back on track, but what is important is that the £7 billion a bank pays out in bonuses is £7 billion of cuts we need not suffer. The argument that higher taxes and a serious curb on bonuses will make all the “good people” leave is an argument in favour of them – the fewer gamblers the better. If we don’t want this to happen again then they have to be stopped anyway. Besides which, whenever this threat is made it never ever comes true.

      Seriously, why I am paying for their recklessness?

  4. I was born in 1961, up until the late 70s and early 80s, we still manufactured a lot of stuff and sold it. The benefits you could get then where paltry to what you can claim now. But Maggie let the vast majority of industry die off, whilst our foreign competitors revitalised their own industries. We allowed what was left to be sold off to foreign corporations, who don’t usually stay long, long enough to asset strip perhaps. The UK is left with a small manufacturing sector, to support a huge “service” sector and and an even bigger public sector. The banks and the likes of top shop evade as much tax as possible. Meanwhile over the last 13 years Labour spent like it was going out of fashion. It is commendable to create 1M jobs in the public sector, but they don’t create wealth, only use it.

    There is no magic answer. Only basic economics. You’ll go bust if you spend more than you earn. The present conservative/liberal alliance have an unenviable task on their hands, but they don’t have any real plan to revitalise wealth creating industries. All they can do is squeeze, and try to pay the debt off.

    As to your claim that the demonstrations that rocked Britain this winter? yeah right. No not really. Very few have any sympathy for those in the public sector.

  5. The problem is that all this protestors don’t want to face the music and very often they don’t know what they are talking about.

    Take the UKuncut for example. They keep harping at the concept of “tax dodgers” putting in the same bag companies and people that use legitimate means to pay as little tax as possible (all contractors in the UK do this, which are by no means rich people, anybody claiming benefits is fundamentally doing the same) mixed with the nasty tax avoiders who set deceiving financial smokes and mirrors in order to deceive the UK treasury.

    So if they are not even clear about this, it is frankly difficult to take them seriously.

    Most people in the UKuncut movement can’t grasp the difference, and in neither case are doing anything politically useful (the UK is not Egypt, there is a democratic process in place, if your wishes are not being served it is because most people don’t care about those issues strongly enough to be considered a vote changer, a responsible movement would organize itself to change the law in the case of legal although perhaps unethical tax avoidance and would ensure court cases are started against those actually not paying tazes they should, they would not be wasting their time protesting in front of Vodafone shops).

    As for students protesting tuiton fees, it is all rather pathetic frankly.

    It is laughable how the Lib Dems, the party that was the most student friendly of the 3 main political parties prior to the last elections, actualy lost a share of the vote and of MPs after the last election, that shows the level of apathy of many of these students, that have the enthusiasm to go one day and walk for a couple of hours in Central London with a placard with witty phrases rather than join a political party, vote and involve themselves in the proper political process in order to enact change (lets obviate that most of them have no read the actual proposals, once they read them, well, let the facts speak for themselves: )

    And so on and so forth.

    We have to face up to one reality: we can’t continue living beyond our means. I dislike Conservatives with a passion, but when I don’t hear a credible alternative to what they are doing I realize they have a white canvas to enact policies that are necessary and on the back of them piggyback those that they hold dear and that any decent human being would consider hideous (like most of all that Big Society nonsense, just trying to abandon all responsibility of the state to the hands of hapless individuals).

    Blame that on Labour and a generation or two that have shown the most appaling political and social apathy.

  6. Article by Dan Han….

    There haven’t been any net public spending cuts – but try to say so and you’ll be howled down as a liar

    There comes a moment in the media cycle when a story is past the point of correction. We have reached that moment in the reporting of the “Tory cuts”.

    The Treasury statistics are unambiguous. Total public spending has risen in every month since the coalition was formed. During the seven months that followed the general election, spending was £23.3 billion higher than during the equivalent period twelve months previously, an increase of seven per cent.

    Say so, though, and you will be treated as a madman, as I discovered on a BBC phone-in over the weekend. When I recited the figures, the presenter, Stephen Nolan, broke in with incredulous rage: “How can you say there have been no cuts? What are you talking about?”

    I tried to reply that all I was doing was quoting the official statistics, but he was having none of it. “I do wonder how your comments will go down with people around the country who are losing their jobs,” etc etc.

    I don’t blame the BBC: Tories talk about these imagined “cuts” quite as insistently as Labour supporters. And, of course, some individual budgets are being reduced, for all that the overall total has risen. Many local authorities, in particular, are cutting services. Then again, as Ross Clark writes in a brilliant Spectator article, these reductions are often being made by councils which manage to retain dozens of officers on six figure salaries. If every council employee agreed to take no more than the wage of a middle-ranking minister, hundreds of libraries could be reprieved.

    Still, as I say, the story is now past correction. Denying the scale of the reductions – ie, quoting the actual statistics – is so jarring that, not only do you fail to convince, you damage your credibility across the board. It’s like claiming that Margaret Thatcher raised spending on the NHS: it might be statistically accurate but, to eighty per cent of your listeners, it establishes you as a liar.

    What the government means by “cuts” is, in fact, what Thatch meant: that public spending will shrink as a proportion of GDP. In other words, the state sector will grow, but the private sector will grow faster. Since the former is funded by the latter, this surely makes sense.

    Yet so embedded is the idea that there has been an absolute reduction in state spending that a narrative is now forming to the effect that the economic slowdown is being caused by “the cuts”. What cuts, for Heaven’s sake?

    Along with the thought provoking comments on here already I feel Britain is in for a very rough ride.

    Sense of entitlement, no sense of personal responsibility and fiscal ignorance.

    Dark days ahead indeed.

    1. You are missing entirely the point.

      YOu can make cuts allright, but the servicing of the debt (the interest) may be so out of control that even if you are cutting jobs and closing services you may actually be spending more than before (compound interest and all that).

      So I think Nolan (local BBC Radio Shock Jock) had a bit of reason when heckling you, but you would be also right if what you are saying is true.

      And that is, I think, the crux of the matter, that nobody seems to have a handle of the whole situation, we all learn bits and pieces about the whole picture here and there, but nobody (politician, institution, government) is making a coherent case of the way we must be following.

      I hope this crisis puts an end to Economics being considered proper science.

  7. The pernicious meme that “There’s no more money” is quite easily revealed as a lie when you look at where the money isn’t coming from.

    What I really object to is the whining fatalism embraced by the supporters of slash and burn “reform”. The message is a thoroughly unambitious dirge of “There’s no alternative”, “We can’t expect things to get better” and “Pain is inevitable- so long as it’s for other people”.

    Quite frankly, Fuck that.

    This is the UK that we’re talking about. The sixth largest economy on earth, a country that conquered a third of the earth’s land area whilst in relatively more debt than it is at present , a country that rebuilt itself after WWII while simultaneously making massive investments in health, education and welfare for all. It’s not a poor country by any means. The reason for all these cuts is not that that we can’t provide them, it’s that an ideological decision has been made not to provide them.

    Yes, we need an alternative vision of what the country could look like. Yes we need an alternative model for the economy that doesn’t rely on the Casino of London. But may I suggest that the answer involves copying the countries that have coped best with this downturn rather than copying those that have coped least well. Current Government policy is now running from the script that lead into the great depression, rather than the one that lead out of it. It’s copying Ireland, with its cuts, and massive misery for the general population and protection for the criminals, which is as close to utter insanity as policymaking can really get.

    1. There is, of course, a holistic view that makes the point that if only the rich could be made to pay more, everything would be fine because, yes, there actually is plenty of cash in the economy. The problem with such a view is that its much easier said than done. How does the government increase the tax take? Its been shown several times that increasing tax often leads to a lower total take. To some extent, me with my non-cynical hat on thinks the Tories are trying to increase total societal contributions through their “big society” concept. I’ve no idea how well it could work (assuming its implemented effectively).

    2. Argentina was the 8th economy in the world in the 50s-60s.

      Japan was 2nd, and it has been now in economic stagnation for the best part of 20 years.

      Where you are counts for nothing if the wrong decision are being taken.

      Certainly the government is missing the train in taxing the banks and the people at the helm of them, but having said that what right has the UK to over tax comapnies for profits they are making elsewhere?

      Do that and the answer is pretty simple: relocation.

      As for having conquered whatever you care to mention(like if colonialism was an achievement as compared with the human misery it caused) and being able to be in massive debt, well, duh. All that landmass was the necessary collateral to acquire that humongous debt.

      What do we have now to back the current debt? What is the collateral for that, The Falklands? (OK, if the UK had made a colony of Afghanistan I would get it, but we know that will not, should not, happen…) So what is your point exactly?

      1. The relocation issue is fairly easy to solve: get the g20 to agree on a flat rate of corporation tax, and say that if you do business in any g20 country you must pay this basic rate to the country concerned. It doesn’t have to be a huge sum of money either – 5% is better than nothing – but it needs to be a flat rate and it needs to be consistent. If you don’t want to do business in the 20 largest economies in the world because you object to paying a pittance in tax then fine, someone else will fill the gap created in the market by your departure.

        There’s something very wrong with a society which taxes those on minimum wage more than it charges corporations whose revenue is in the billions.

        1. “The relocation issue is fairly easy to solve: get the g20 to agree on a flat rate of corporation tax”

          That is a fairly loose definition of an easy solution.

  8. Several up thread have made the salient point that the status quo is not an option.

    It’s much the same thing here in the States.

    If the left thinks that the deficit is the result of the rich and corporations being undertaxed, then let them put forth a specific plan as to what taxes get raised so as to produce 1.3 trillion a year in added revenue.

    If the right thinks that government spending causes the deficit, then let’s see 1.3 trillion in annual cuts.

    Or 650 billion of each.

    By comparison, the actual proposals we are seeing are like trying to cure skin cancer with gauze and iodine.

  9. The probem I have with the cuts is the fact that they are so clearly ideologically driven. We have the fourth largest military spending in the world, and have gone out of our way to make tax havens to encourage investment in our economy. Meanwhile, the tories are proposing to cut corporation tax to an effective rate of 0% ( ) and amongst all of this, the best way we can find to cut our deficit is by cutting public services and education?

    Also, why is running a deficit suddenly such an overwhelming problem? We’ve been running a deficit almost continuously since 1977 and it’s not been an issue before. If this were a problem, people would not buy bonds because they would be worried about the government defaulting. It’s not, and they’re not, so to me it seems that the government is selling ideology based cuts that would otherwise be extremely unpopular with the rhetoric that these cuts are inevitable. The whole point of running a deficit is that you’re using money now to add value to the economy which can be paid later. It seems farcical to pretend that we absolutely have to pay off 30+ years of debt overnight, and the only way to do this is by axing all the public services that the tories just so happen to dislike anyway.

    1. Are people here completely deluded about the nature of the private sector? The vast majority of companies are not making millions for the owners who are not busy taking every opportunity to screw the tax man. Most companies are frighteningly close to bankruptcy and most employees would quit tomorrow if they realised just how close to the wire their employers actually are. A good company can typically afford to pay staff for about 3 months in the face of no income.

      Contrast this with the public sector where many people seem to be thinking that they are entitled to a job for life (with pay above comparable jobs in the private section) and a tasty pension from 60 (nicely topped up from general taxation) whilst all the time pissing away money that would be abhorrent in any normal company and, frankly, not really delivering a good service in the process.

      1. The vast majority of companies are not making millions for the owners who are not busy taking every opportunity to screw the tax man. Most companies are frighteningly close to bankruptcy

        They’re close to bankruptcy because the owners have been sucking unreasonable profits out of them for years rather than reinvesting in the business. Executives make literally hundreds of times what their workers make.

        Of course businesses are falling apart. That’s what happens when you systematically plunder them for decades.

          1. It costs money to retain effective leaders!

            You’d have to find one before you could retain it. I think that they may be extinct.

    2. “Also, why is running a deficit suddenly such an overwhelming problem?”

      Because it is unsustainable. We do not have the ability to manufacture/export our way out of this hole. We have been in a bear market since 1982. Bubbles in tech stocks, public spending and most recently housing have hidden the massive underlying imbalances that are crushing our economy.

      Our DEBT is now £4.3 TRILLION… do you have any idea how much money that really is??

      We are living a lifestyle which we simply cannot afford. Look around you at the over-leveraged middle-classes – people with huge interest only mortgages, multiple cars on HP, Ocean finance loans, maxed out credit cards, permanent overdrafts. They are just like the UK…. fucked.

      Not sustainable.

      Forget the party politics. Maths trumps ideology.

      1. Yes, I completely agree with you that it’s not sustainable, but it’s also not a problem we can (or should try to) solve overnight. Equally, claiming that the only way we can fix this “must-be-solved-right-now” problem is by axing all of the public services that the tories dislike on an ideological level anyway is at best disingenuous, at worst out right dishonest.

        Why should the poorest sections of society (the people who actually use public services) be made to take the brunt of the impact of the mistakes of the richest 5% of society, who were the ones engaging in dubious investment practices whilst simultaneously lobbying for deregulation of the financial services industry, the stripping and selling of public assets and supporting the loss of our manufacturing sector?

  10. Much of the current deficit issues in most western countries come from the evangelical fervour with which politicos and their owners have campaigned for tax cuts – particularly for the wealthy. Then, when the state is starved and tottering along on debt (largely owed to the same wealthy rentiers), it is time to cut services.

    That, combined with a near pathological need to squander billions per day on foolhardy wars with no meaningful hope of success, and suddenly you have people making a case for cutting services to the people.

    Hilariously, the biggest deficits tend to be created during conservative governments – at least in North America.

    1. Much of the current deficit issues in most western countries come from the evangelical fervour with which politicos and their owners have campaigned for tax cuts – particularly for the wealthy. Then, when the state is starved and tottering along on debt (largely owed to the same wealthy rentiers), it is time to cut services.

      That, combined with a near pathological need to squander billions per day on foolhardy wars with no meaningful hope of success, and suddenly you have people making a case for cutting services to the people.

      Hilariously, the biggest deficits tend to be created during conservative governments – at least in North America.

      It simply bears repeating. (From an American disgusted with the ideological tax-cutters eagerly wrecking my country.)

  11. UKUncut has a way of selecting its targets that smells of astroturfing and not sincere interest. Basically looks like they’re sponsored by a political party, the one not in power in the UK parlament to be exact.

    One of the biggest examples is that they are going after Barclays (which pays little tax since most of its profits are abroad and engages in a lot of tax “optimization”) but not going after The Guardian (which is a left-wing paper) who is an offshore entity and does not pay any tax at all. Plenty of other examples, read more on Guido Fawkes’ blog if you are interested.

  12. What I find interesting is comparing the UK protests and the Egyptian protests. Not just their amount of success, but the approach that the people in the streets took as compared to the responses of authorities. What people felt was their due and how they approached delivering their message.

  13. Wow. All these comments blaming the protestors for the collapse of the economy. While almost no mention of the legislated tax evasion for the wealthiest. Globally I only see one group being asked to buck up and belt tighten. Hint: it’s not the top 5%.

  14. If you read the right blogs, follow the right people on Twitter, and subscribe to the right RSS feeds, then perhaps you’ve already read most of these artless, during the last few extraordinary weeks of 2010.

    I thought maybe I was on Limbaugh or Beck’s website at first, reading about the recent US elections and the rise of the Tea Party :P

  15. Um, i’m hearing a lot about ‘entitlement’ – would that be referring to the protest kids, or, the actual people with titles? Which of the ‘entitled’ is really to blame? Doesn’t it take an inordinate amount of stones for Lord Flogabout or whomever to be complaining about the kids’ ‘sense of entitlement?”

  16. Winter of Discontent-are you unaware of the previous usage, Cory, or did you mean to compare David Cameron to Jim Callaghan?

    If the latter, do you really think the conditions in the UK right now are
    comparable to what was going on at the end of Callaghan’s time in office? (Fun fact: the Sex Pistols came together and broke up while Callaghan was PM-when they were talking about Anarchy in the UK, they were not, contrary to popular imagination, complaining about Thatcher.) If you do think so, can you explain why you think that?

    @Cynical 15: Britain has the fourth largest military in the world, and it’s getting cut, too, which is driving some people nuts-witness the complaints from Army types over the planned cuts there and many other folks going gaga over the end of the Ark Royal and other trims to Navy budget-Peter Hitchens is an excellent example.

    The Cameron government is not sparing the military while cutting social services-they are cutting both. Now, the US government, that’s a different story…

  17. Winter of Discontent-are you unaware of the previous usage, Cory, or did you mean to compare David Cameron to Jim Callaghan?

    You mean it’s not a reference to this dude?

  18. @Antinous 32

    It’s a reference, ultimately, to the Shakespearean play about Richard III, but it’s doubtful that he ever said anything Shakespeare attributed to him.

    Within the context of British politics, it’s been a reference to Callaghan since the winter in question-among those anoraks like myself who actually remember Callaghan. (Most Britons would be hard-pressed to name the man, and it is common for folks to attribute problems that occurred under Callaghan to Thatcher: the man has vanished into a hole in popular memory.) When Cory headlines a post that way, either he’s making an implicit comparison (in which case I would be interested to read an explicit comparison-how is what Cameron is presiding over comparable to what was going on under Callaghan1?), or he’s showing a *very* surprising lack of knowledge, given his interests and proclivities.

    1 My view on this is that the economic situation of the country is worse than it was in 1979, but a lot of other things are better-you certainly don’t have the strikes you had then, but that might be because folks are terrified to strike. Cameron’s coalition looks to me like it is in better shape than Callaghan’s minority government was during their “Winter of Discontent.” I’m not a British voter, though, which is why I’d be interested to read a view from someone who is.

  19. the wave of anti-cut demonstrations that have rocked Britain this winter

    Mmmm, London-centric.

    I saw the protests in Glasgow and in Edinburgh. They were barely rocking the Vodafone store, let alone the whole country.

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