It was a grand idea for a demo, a marriage of guerrilla theater and slick ad-agency wit. On May Day–a week before Prime Minister Tony Blair officially launched his re-election campaign–London was transformed into a virtual Monopoly board to spotlight the destructive power of capital. There was a rally against Third World debt outside the World Bank in the Haymarket, cardboard hotels to protest homelessness on Park Lane, free veggie burgers outside McDonald’s at King’s Cross and plans for a Sale of the Century in the consumer canyon of Oxford Street–all squares in the British version of the game. Facts about world trade were printed on Monopoly money; legal advice was dispensed on cards marked “Get Out of Jail Free.”
Despite the advance hysteria about armies of brick-throwing anarchists, most of the demonstrators seemed “fluffy” to the point of marshmallowdom. Overthrow Capitalism and Replace It With Something Nicer, one banner suggested politely. A man dressed as Mary Poppins defied a mayoral order by feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square; cyclists in sparkly wigs protested the reign of the car. But after last year’s riot, in which shop windows were smashed and Winston Churchill’s statue got a green mohawk makeover, the police were taking no chances. They herded the demonstrators to Oxford Circus, where 6,000 officers in riot gear kept 5,000 people trapped for seven hours with nothing to drink but the rain. By late afternoon, to no one’s surprise, the predicted violence had materialized.
Without the police cordons holding it together, the demonstration could easily have slipped from pluralism to total fragmentation. Some groups came out to share the work they do all year; others seemed interested only in a good protest party. There were no unions, no community associations, few pressure groups of any kind. This splintering of purpose is partly a reflection of disfranchisement. According to a Channel 4 poll, most people in Britain agree that multinational corporations have more control over their lives than Tony Blair’s government, and that those corporations care only about their profits. None of the mainstream parties address these concerns. Last year’s May Day protesters dug up Parliament Square; this year the action had moved to the true symbols of power: the banks, McDonald’s, Niketown.
The general election that will give New Labour its historic second term is set for June 7, but there is no tension, no buzz: We might as well be reappointing the chairman of Britain plc. Representative government seems more and more of a sham. MPs are slaves to the party whips, who force them to vote with their leaders regardless of constituents’ views. Policy is made, American-style, by the administration in Downing Street and its unelected advisers. When George W. Bush announced his plan to go ahead with the Son of Star Wars missile defense system, it was Blair’s press spokesman, Alastair Campbell, who confirmed the government’s intention to toady along as usual, minutes after his boss had made a far more cautious statement in the House of Commons.
There’s also no viable opposition. The Liberal Democrats (who often pop up these days on Labour’s left flank) are shut out by Blair’s endless postponement of the promised referendum on proportional representation. Conservatives are busy picking over William Hague’s bones, maneuvering for position in the leadership contest to come. Inevitable defeat has brought Tory right-wingers out of the woodwork, and Hague’s halfhearted attempts to keep his party’s right arm from flying wildly upward have satisfied no one, marking him finally for the cull. The Tory foot-in-mouth outbreak began with an MP’s comment that Labour is turning the British into “a mongrel race”; before long Margaret Thatcher’s old lieutenant Lord Tebbit was confiding on prime-time radio that he knows of no happy multicultural society. Even in Britain, where publicly acceptable “concern” about asylum-seekers stands in for unacceptable racism, such comments tend to place the Tories (just) beyond the pale [see John Ghazvinian, page 20].