On Saturday, I was invited to join a BBC Five Live debate, around 10:15 p.m. Chaired by Stephen Nolan, it was mainly a conversation between me and a representative of the “Occupy London” protest movement, Naomi Colvin (pronounced Nigh-Oh-Mee, apparently).
The “Occupy London” movement is of course camped outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, forcing the Cathedral authorities to close the building to the public because of potential problems with Fire Department access. This is the first time that the Cathedral has been closed to the public since the Second World War. I hope that the organisers of Occupy London are proud to be emulating the achievement of the Luftwaffe. It is worth noting that as a consequence of the closure, the Cathedral is losing an estimated £16,000 a day, so it is not a decision that would have been made lightly.
It seems to me, by the way, that if the Fire Department believes that the protesters’ camp would obstruct access for fire-fighters, then the camp is “causing an obstruction”, and the police could act to remove it. Maybe they should.
Naomi spent some time in futile attempts to insist that the closure had nothing to do with her movement, since the decision had been taken by the Cathedral authorities. She seemed impervious to the obvious point that while the decision had been made by the Cathedral, the reason was the protest encampment. If the protesters went away, the Cathedral would re-open.
But I — and Stephen Nolan — were keen to hear what the protesters were actually demanding. It’s one thing to express dissatisfaction with government policy, but quite another to propose practical and superior alternatives. And here an astonishing fact emerged. The protesters have no demands. They have no policy. They appear not to have two ideas in their heads to rub together. Indeed, they have no idea at all.
Again and again Nolan and I demanded to know what Naomi wanted. Again and again, she prevaricated. The protesters’ “grand committee” would formulate policy and demands. Well, asked I, why not go home until you’ve worked out what it is you want, and then come back and tell us? If she couldn’t tell us what the protest wanted, could she at least tell us what she herself wanted? What motivated her? Astonishingly, she “couldn’t speak for the grand committee”. So why was she their spokeswoman?
Helpfully, I suggested she might perhaps want the end of capitalism. No, she said, just a different kind of capitalism. What kind, we asked? Another dead end. No idea at all.
At this stage I started to get the uncomfortable feeling that Stephen Nolan and I were ganging up on the poor defenceless woman. To be honest, I felt quite sorry for her. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. But on the other hand, I felt it was important for listeners to know just how empty and vacuous her protest was.
The only theme that emerged was a demand for “a new kind of democratic engagement”. What kind? Again, not clear. Naomi sought, reasonably enough, to identify her movement with recent protests in New York. But she also, bizarrely, adduced a link with the Arab Spring. Now while I may have my own issues with David Cameron, I’d find it difficult to put him in the same category as Muamar Gaddafi, or Bashar Al-Assad. Apparently she was blissfully unaware that we actually had a General Election just last year, and that the present government was elected then. In a country which can arguably be regarded as the birthplace of democracy, it’s difficult to justify street protests demanding democracy.
Five Live has been getting a lot of hostile public comment on the protest camp. People are concerned that Saint Paul’s, that great icon of freedom and resistance to tyranny, should have been closed in this way. It is just a few weeks to Remembrance Sunday. If the Cathedral remains closed on that day, public concern will turn to fury. The protesters are doing great damage to their cause (if they have one).