Rosamund McCarthy: Is this the beginning of the end for the old certainties of campaigning?

Third Sector, 8 November 2011

Rosamund McCarthy

Rosamund McCarthy

Recent direct action by young people could pave the way for a new style of campaigning, according to our columnist

I like to think of myself as a free spirit. However, deep down, I dislike uncertainty. I have been at the law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite for 20 years and I met most of my close friends at school and university. My need for certainty complements my work as a charity lawyer. A charity is a creature that can be understood: I'm reassured that its policies and procedures are, or should be, written down.

In contrast, I am struck by the occupation at St Paul's Cathedral, near my office. In the past weeks, about 200 tents have sprung up as part of the protest against economic injustice. By the time you read this, Occupy London Stock Exchange might have gone. But a semi-permanent camp developed quickly: there are food, press and meditation tents, as well as a library, a visitors book and legal advisers. There are meetings, films, workshops and a general assembly every day.

Can you imagine how much paperwork a charity would have generated for this kind of gathering? There would be an endless stream of correspondence to obtain permissions and health and safety consents, and detailed work to agree speakers and workshop sessions. Yet Occupy London Stock Exchange simply set up camp, in solidarity with demonstrations on Wall Street and in Madrid, Rome and Athens. According to the occupiers, there are no leaders, only facilitators, and all of them contribute to decisions as part of "direct democracy".

Protests of this kind always have informal leaders. A theme of one of my favourite novels, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, is that there are always power relationships among activists - particularly between men and women. Nevertheless, in listening to the speeches outside St Paul's, I have been struck by their emphases on inclusive decision-making and - in stark contrast to the recent rioters - being peaceful. A sign proclaims that Jesus would have been outside with the protesters, not inside the wealth and splendour of St Paul's. Perhaps this is the reason that Dr Giles Fraser, the canon chancellor of St Paul's who stood down last week, allowed the first protesters to stay because of his view that "financial justice is a Christian imperative".

I look at the faces of the mainly young protesters and think this is only the beginning. Charities and traditional campaigning entities with boards and elections could be bypassed in favour of loose coalitions of activists, some peaceful and some not. Those young people who don't have jobs or any prospect of permanent housing, who have little stake in society, might not see the need to buy into formal protest organisations, with their rules and regulations. I have had job security for 20 years and can afford the luxury of my need for certainty. Legal campaigning structures with their bureaucracy might seem irrelevant or part of the problem. The young live in uncertain times. They will achieve change any way they can.

Rosamund McCarthy writes in a personal capacity

Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite

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