I wrote the Protestor’s Handbook in 2007-8; it was one of the hardest, most intense periods of work I’ve ever been through, and coincided with a big upsurge in activism, particularly environmental activism in the UK. The book was published initially in a large format, and then republished this year as a paperback; all sorts of people have told me that it’s been really important to them which means a huge amount. It was certainly very important to me. I’m putting up the introduction here; as soon as I’ve worked out how, I’ll post some of the chapters too.
I wrote this book because the idea of campaigning, of protesting, of raising your voice on behalf of others, gives me profound pleasure somewhere in my middle. There are millions of people around the world today who are taking matters into their own hands, and they are continuing the work of others before them who have fought for the right to make their own decisions, to own their own land, to refuse to wage war, or just to paint their house an unusual shade of pink. It is a view of our history, an aspect of our society, that I find infinitely preferable to others. There should be much more of it.
Far too many of us, however, have no idea how easy it is to get up and do something. “Isn’t that illegal?” has been the response to some of the tactics I’ve looked at in this book. “Not if you do it in a legal way” is the answer (although some tactics are deliberately illegal – that is the actual tactic itself). If you want to get into a corporation’s annual general meeting, for example, you don’t have to break into the venue and camp in the kitchen overnight: you can just buy a share in the company, which legally entitles you to be present. Other options, such as letter-writing and lobbying, are far simpler and more effective than you might imagine.
So this is my attempt to make the weapons of campaigning as accessible as possible. I’ve spoken to campaigners from the right, left and centre to find the simplest and most effective ways of using these weapons. I’ve sought mainly legal ways of taking action, and, with the indispensable aid of the legal researchers Susanna Rickard and Ben Silverstone, set out our rights and the laws that circumscribe them in areas such as marches, demonstrations, protest camps and everything else we could think of.
These weapons need to be used. After it took so many centuries, so much blood, so much anger and pain and disappointment for ordinary men and women to win the vote, and at least a measure of equality, we seem to have surrendered our self-determination without even thinking about it. A powerful group of multinational corporations, and international financial and political institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, now control our lives. In many ways we are still in the powerless position of any medieval peasant: these behemoths run the world, and we have little say in their composition and their plans, and few ways of holding them accountable for their actions. The channels through which we can funnel our concerns are narrow, and usually controlled by those who have most to lose from any challenge to the status quo. All that effort, all those years spent storming parliament, and now the seat of power has moved.
There are other problems that society needs to deal with, both here in Britain and around the world. Climate change is the overwhelming issue, and it is vital to use every means to hand to push reluctant politicians into action. Write letters, picket, march – whatever you feel like this week. The more pressure we apply the better. Then there is the state’s creeping intrusion into our private lives, the furious, never-ending debate about immigration, the clash of Islamism and the west. You are unlikely to be the person who can singlehandedly resolve any of these issues. But your contribution may be critical. It takes a surprisingly small number of letters to persuade a politician to act, a surprisingly tiny number of complaints to persuade a company to change its policy.
Fortunately, as this book demonstrates, there are many dedicated people who are putting their hearts and souls into trying to negotiate a slightly fairer deal for everyone. The 20th century saw a huge boom in NGOs (non-governmental organisations), or “public interest groups”, or “pressure groups”, as they’re also known: these now account for more than 4 percent of the world’s working population. A few of these organisations seem to spend their time having meetings, and their money on one pointless mail-out or television advertisement after another, but the best are astonishingly good at what they do: keeping unremitting pressure on governments and companies, and getting the issues in front of the public week after week.
But I’m even more interested in the ones who don’t get paid, who far outnumber the professionals. I’ve come to think that politics is at its best when energetically argued by amateurs, and I’ve really written this book for them. The professionals, the MPs and lobbyists do not, on the whole, cast much of a glow, but the amateurs are wonderful! You would not believe the buzz at meetings that are called by volunteers and attended by volunteers, with no one being paid a penny and everyone coming just because they care. (And, OK, sometimes because there is free tea and biscuits. But the biscuits are usually pretty low-standard.) Many of the best campaigning ideas seem to come from volunteers; the passion to improve the world (in your own eyes, at least) runs very deeply indeed. In The Vote, Paul Foot’s book about British democracy, a young suffragette, Charlotte Despard, encapsulates how inspiring and transformative this can be: “For me and many other young women like me, militant suffrage was the very salt of life. The knowledge of it had come like a draught of fresh air into our padded, stifled lives. It gave us release of energy, it gave us that sense of being some use in the scheme of things, without which no human being can live in peace. It made us feel that we were part of life, not just watching it … ”
The whole point of this stuff is Doing It For Yourself. It is quite remarkable what we can all do, and the sense of achievement in doing something such as organising a meeting, getting a response from a politician, setting up your own website, is – to use a horrendous but useful 60s word – empowering. I’ve always gone on marches, and signed petitions, and made sure that I voted. Although it seems only a small step to start organising for yourself, it is quite a difficult step: one’s mind immediately silts up with worries about time, and it has to be said that this stuff tends to eat up time even faster than it eats stamps. But the compensation is that it does work. Throughout human history the people have affected the decisions of the leaders, through stone-throwing or marches or petitions, in a way that one historian described perfectly as “collective bargaining by riot”. Slowly, slowly, like scarab beetles rolling dung balls up a hill, we have tried to nudge history along in the direction we want it to go. This book is a nudge to encourage nudging.