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Ghosts of Thatcherism

The UK government's attack on dissent and protest rights echoes a long history of state suppression, revealing a deep fear of the power of a mobilised working class.

A spectre of censorship haunts Britain, a spectre with a long and brutal history. The Conservative government’s relentless assault on dissent echoes their predecessors’ fear of a mobilised working class. It’s a grimly ironic anniversary—40 years since striking miners, labelled “the enemy within,” stood against Thatcher’s regime and faced the savagery of the police at places like Orgreave.

Today, the battle lines may have shifted, but the tactics remain eerily familiar. The reactionary right, desperately clinging to power, throws Trumpist culture-war distractions at the wall, hoping something will stick. Trans lives, the desperate plight of migrants—all are exploited to sow division. Now, they’ve added Palestinian solidarity to the list, branding it as extremism to erode public support. “Maggie would fix this!” some on the right lament, overlooking the inconvenient truth – she’s no longer with us.

My political coming of age was the early 2000s, protesting against Blair, Bush, New Labour, and the Neo Conservatives’ war in Iraq. The London protests culminating in Hyde Park were massive. There’s nothing like hearing your political heroes speak to a crowd; Tony Benn was always a highlight, and holding your trade union banner aloft while making your voice heard. The Prime Minister wants to take that away from those starting out at the very same age. The hypocrisy is the classic “do as I say, not as I do,” with him recently appearing in Wales with protesting farmers and a conspiracy group opposed to net zero policies.

But make no mistake, this isn’t about specific causes. It’s a calculated assault on the very idea that we, the people, have the power to challenge an unjust system. The state, never a neutral arbiter, reveals its primary function: protecting the interests of the ruling class. New proposals targeting so-called “extremist” protests are chilling examples of this. The deliberately vague terminology creates a net designed to ensnare any movement that dares to demand true change, particularly those rooted in working class struggle.

The state’s obsession with protecting elected officials is telling. Would workers on a picket line, fighting for a living wage against the greed of the corporate titans they enrich, receive the same protection? Those in power would label them “undemocratic” in an attempt to discredit their struggle, conflating it with the actions of those they deem politically extreme. The language painting dissenters as “un-British” serves to shield the powerful while silencing those they exploit. It reinforces a false sense of national unity that obscures the profound class divisions tearing this country apart.

Behind the bluster, a tired Conservative government desperately scrambles to maintain control. A weak unelected Prime Minister teeters on the brink, while ambitious figures eagerly await his inevitable downfall and their chance to claim power. Their relentless attacks aren’t signs of strength, but the panicked flailing of those who sense the tide of history turning against them. However, we cannot underestimate the very real danger these restrictions on protest pose. Our hard-won right to assembly, to speak out, to demand change—these are the lifeblood of a just society. They are also the greatest threat to an established order that serves the few at the expense of the many.

The Prime Minister’s rhetoric about protecting the country from extremism rings hollow when his own government harbours figures bent on division and demonisation. Divisive characters like Lee Anderson, with his crude appeals to populism, former Home Secretary Suella Braverman and her draconian anti-migrant policies, or Robert Jenrick the new wannabe strongman—these individuals operate with impunity. And let us not forget former Prime Minister Liz Truss, whose disastrous economic policies wreaked havoc and deepened inequality. Her appearance at CPAC in the United States last week saw her appear with Steve Bannon and fail to condemn Tommy Robinson. They are the true extremists, operating from within the halls of power, and their actions pose a far greater threat to Britain than any protest movement ever could.

Holding our elected representatives accountable extends beyond mere procedure. Tory language is emboldening the far right to resurrect hateful rhetoric. Their calls for deportation of even first, second, or third-generation migrants echo the language of the National Front in the 1970s and 1980s and the British National Party of the 1990s and 2000s. Anti-racist and anti-fascist activists defeated these ideas, held our streets from the fascists, but now Tory politicians and far-right commentators are reviving them. Blind to the hateful nature of this language, they attempt to evoke a bygone era—a time of village greens, bowler hats, warm beer, and spitfires. The irony, of course, is that most who support this rhetoric are too young to remember it.

Let us draw inspiration from those who came before, from the battles won and lost. From the brutal suppression of the Peterloo Massacre to the triumphant roar of the Anti-Poll tax demonstrations, British history is littered with testaments to the power of collective action. The tireless campaigning of the “Ban the Bomb” movement and the groundswell of public anger against the Iraq War are stark reminders that even the most entrenched systems can be challenged.

The working class, throughout history, has been the engine of progressive change. From the Chartists demanding democratic reform to the suffragettes fighting for women’s right to vote, our streets have echoed with the voices of those demanding a fairer society. These struggles, often met with violence and derision, ultimately paved the way for a more just Britain.

Today, the fight continues. The government’s assault on protest is a blatant attempt to silence dissent and stifle progress. But we must not surrender to fear. We must remember the legacy of those who came before us, the ordinary people who dared to raise their voices and demand change. Together, in solidarity, we can reclaim our right to protest and ensure that Britain becomes a nation that truly listens to its people.

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