London, 26 March 2011: If you watch the news tonight, you’ll probably see images of ‘anarchists’ (read: a hotchpotch of criminals, vandals and thugs) smashing up the Ritz, throwing paint at Topman, smashing the window of a Porsche dealership, throwing paint-bombs at the police and generally doing a lot of other fairly disagreeable rampaging.
These are the images that will represent a day of demonstrations against the coalition government.
And yet. According to most reporters on the ground in London, the people causing criminal damage and wreaking havoc on the city constitute only a tiny minority of the 400,000 demonstrators who have come to the capital to protest government policy towards tax and public spending.
I suppose it was ever thus. Read the chronicle accounts of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, and you are struck immediately by very similar, if more extreme headlines: the sack of the Savoy (then a palace, not a hotel, but very arguably the Ritz of its day); attacks on super-wealthy London merchants suspected of corrupt political collusion; violent, murderous attacks on government officials and, yes, a lot of other fairly disagreeable rampaging.
In 1381 the worst violence was perpetrated by a similarly small, violent and criminal element of the rebels. They were the rebels that remained longest in London, committed the most barbaric acts and were eventually slaughtered with the greatest prejudice by the government.
What one hears very little about when the news gets made (and when history is written) is the vast herds of non-violent protesters, who have political grievances but wish to express them noisily, peacefully and within the law.
The thing about those protesters, be they public sector workers in 2011 or over-taxed rural landowners in 1381, is that what they do is interesting but essentially quite boring.
Or to put it another way: we would rather read about a nutter chucking a bin through the window of the Vodafone store and a mad priest chopping the archbishop of Canterbury’s head off, than a mildly cheesed-off ordinary Joe exercising his right to protest (as is now) and then going home.
I’m not saying that’s right. I’m saying that’s the news for you. And that’s history too, to an extent. We get our kicks from studying the exceptional and the extreme.
PS I should probably say at this point that if you want to know more about 1381, and thus learn a little more about where we stand in 2011, then you can buy my book, here.