BY NIALL MCCRAE AND ROGER WATSON
Protests and protestors do not have a good reputation in the mind of the public, being characterised by self-righteous agitators pursuing marginal and possibly subversive causes, while causing disruption to others. This image suits the authorities, but it is not always sustainable. People attending massive demonstrations, like that against war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003, could not be portrayed as eccentric or extreme because those attending appeared too ‘normal’; particularly as educated middle class seemed prominent in the legionnaires.
Government, we contend, is much more worried by widely-representative peaceful rallies than of small, anti-establishment groups whose activities are readily besmirched by thuggery. To maintain the desired negative perception of protests, various tactics may be deployed such as agent provocateurs or suppression of media coverage. A clear example of this was a recent march against vaccination mandates in Brussels. About a hundred thousand, many in fancy-dress or bearing humorous placards, contributed to a convivial, festival atmosphere. Meanwhile a small number of young males dressed in black Antifa-style garb attacked police. Some commentators suspect that the hooligans were primed for this violent incident; it certainly succeeded in framing the mainstream media account to the authorities’ liking.
It strikes us that there are remarkable similarities between the enormous Countryside Alliance rally in 2002 and similarly large protests against policies to control the Covid-19 pandemic. While the Countryside Alliance is a single organisation, albeit an umbrella for a range of interests, Covid sceptics are not represented in the same way. The Countryside Alliance, according to its website is a ‘campaigning organisation that promotes the rural way of life’. Covid sceptics do not have a single identity, being comprised of a wide range of beliefs from outright ‘anti-vaxxers’ to those whose main objections to the Covid regime are concerned with the economic, health and social effects of lockdown and other deprivations of liberty.
But what both groups have in common is indignation at affronts to established freedoms and ways of life and a visceral reaction to state overreach into the lives of private citizens. For the Countryside Alliance the touchstone is hunting. For the Covid sceptics it is restrictions to freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of speech. The worst excesses of the Covid regime have been the compulsory closure of businesses and schools, the introduction of vaccine passports and mandatory vaccination.
Both groups have taken to the streets peacefully and both groups have encountered considerable and unwarranted police brutality in contrast to other contemporaneous protests—anti-hunt and black lives matter, respectively—which have proceeded with impunity. This was the case even when they were, for example in the case of black lives matter protesters, violating lockdown mandates. Moreover, members of both the Countryside alliance and the Covid sceptics receive abuse online for expressing their views.
Almost certainly there will be people in both groups, the Countryside Alliance and the Covid sceptics, who do not agree either about hunting or Covid restrictions. Looking around us at the recent freedom rallies across the UK and the ones we attended, there are many who project alternative lifestyles including, for example, veganism. These people are unlikely to be in favour of hunting. A quick search of the website of the Countryside Alliance for information on Covid reveals much about how Covid measures will affect meets and shoots but these are factual rather than critical. However, from the pages of Country Squire Magazine it is clear that not everyone in the countryside is ‘on message’ with the Covid narrative promulgated by the mainstream media.
If anything good has come out of the pandemic it is that, while many have been terrified into social paralysis, an increasing number of people—as witnessed by the size of the recent freedom rallies—have been alerted to what governments can do almost unabated with relative ease to restrict basic freedoms. Those of us now on the Covid sceptic side should, perhaps, have paid more attention to what was happening in the countryside to destroy the rural way of life. While we probably thought we had no stake in whether hunting was permitted or banned we should have seen a common cause.
Moreover, we should have been alerted to what the reaction of the government would be to the lockdown protests. The initial brutality meted out to lockdown protesters by the police and the Territorial Support Group in 2020 is no longer a feature of more recent Covid freedom rallies. However, misreporting of the rallies persists. In London last weekend hundreds of thousands marched in protest at Covid restrictions as evidenced by video footage and eye-witness reports. Yet, this was reported in the mainstream media as a protest involving only ‘hundreds’ of people. Our government is clearly more worried by peaceful mass protests involving ordinary people than by demonstrators who aggressively breach the peace.
Niall McCrae is a Registered Nurse and officer of the Workers of England Union. Roger Watson is a Registered Nurse and Editor-in-Chief of Nurse Education in Practice.