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The Trivialisation of Democracy: The View From Parliament Square?

23/10/2014 12:16 BST | Updated 22/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Waking up on Wednesday morning on the plinth of Winston Churchill's statue in Parliament Square, a young man now known around the world as "statue man" was greeted by one of the most magnificent views in the developed world: of the British Houses of Parliament in Westminster... distant spires glittering in the dawn, Big Ben striking softly with the emerging daylight... (or sunset?; see below)

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The worldwide "mother of Parliaments", and the cradle of individual liberties for the last four hundred years, the current Westminster complex was built after a fire -- emanating from an overheated stove being used to burn tally sticks -- destroyed many of the buildings of the Old Palace in 1834. Public debate about potential reconstruction projects of course soon took hold, and in the following year a committee from the House of Lords announced that "the style of the [new] buildings should be either Gothic or Elizabethan".

In selecting Charles Barry's winning Gothic design -- construction of which began in 1840, but was not completed until a decade after Barry's death in 1860 -- the commissioners involved were swayed by far more than merely cosmetic or structural reasons. Indeed, in an age of industrialisation and rapid political change, the intricate religiosity of the Gothic style had assumed profound symbolic importance.

It was John Ruskin who issued perhaps the most famous praise of Gothic architecture in this regard, commenting on "the first mental element of Gothic architecture" -- that is its "Rudeness or Savageness... [which] true Gothic cannot exist without" -- as follows:

It seems a fantastic paradox, but it is nevertheless a most important truth, that no architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect... For since the architect, whom we will suppose capable of doing all in perfection, cannot execute the whole with his own hands, he must either make slaves of his workmen in the old Greek, and present [neo-Classical] English fashion, and level his work to a slave's capacities, which is to degrade it; or else he must take his workmen as he finds them, and let them show their weaknesses together with their strength, which will involve the Gothic imperfection, but render the whole work as noble as the intellect of the age can make it.

[Stones of Venice, 1853]

As an allegory for Parliamentary government, the Gothic reflex is simple; the new Houses of Parliament should be concerned not with the abstract triumph of human reason and rationality in an age of revolution, but rather with the sacred imperfections of the human spirit in an age of organic compromise and Whiggish/Liberal "progress". Thus the British Houses of Parliament should consist not of artificial lines and smooth neo-Classical faces, but instead should emerge from the Earth like a rocky and uneven landmass, messy as the participatory society from which it came.

Move forward a couple of hundred years however, and although the façade of the building Charles Barry envisioned is now complete, the apparent character of that building has become somewhat deranged. Indeed for today's "statue man", sitting at the feet of Winston Churchill, surrounded by several police officers and accompanying metal fences beneath... the view may appear slightly compromised.

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An account of prior events

In the shadow of our Houses of Parliament, the sequence of events which enabled an ordinary young man to become "statue man" unfolded over the previous day. This was Tuesday 21 October, when the group known as #OccupyDemocracy -- a group aiming to "direct the energy from current single-issue struggles into a critical mass that can radically challenge the corrupt and unrepresentative system" -- entered the fifth day of a scheduled ten day occupation of Parliament Square.

Their residency on Parliament Square Gardens however, was not to last. On Tuesday morning police arrested fifteen protesters who had spent the night sleeping on tarpaulin for "failing to provide details suitable for a summons". Baroness and senior Green Party politician Jenny Jones was also arrested for obstructing police.

"It was the first time I have ever been arrested, and I have to say I was surprised to find it really upsetting... My sympathy is with the protesters. We have a real problem with democracy in this country and they were expressing their views. The police response was like something from Hong Kong... They shouldn't have arrested anybody here. They should have just listened and left them alone."

[Jenny Jones, quoted in the Independent]

Subsequently, protesters were asked to leave Parliament Square Gardens because of damage caused to the grass via the enaction of various bye-laws. In the early afternoon, protesters who refused to leave the grass on the grounds that it was an area designed to facilitate peaceful protest were hauled away by police.

A fence was soon erected around Parliament Square Gardens in order to reduce the need for a police presence to guard the lawn. A sit-in ensued when it transpired that the fencing would also surround the Churchill statue due to discretionary "repair work". Several further arrests were made. It was soon after this time, at around 4pm, that "statue man" (or Danny) assumed his position on the Churchill plinth, by climbing up from the other side of the fencing.

"Statue man" maintained his position atop the plinth throughout the night -- having been given a sleeping bag, food and drink by protesters. He continued to reside on the plinth through Wednesday, despite police forbidding anyone from providing him with further food or drink on the grounds of obstruction. It was only by around 8pm that police finally managed to arrest him, having erected scaffolding around the base of the statue.

The charges levelled against "statue man" consisted largely of damage caused to the Churchill statue in the action of taping to it a sign reading "THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE CONFISCATED".

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In relief

What spirit is it that animates our democracy? What substance is it that lurks behind the Gothic façade of our Houses of Parliament?

The #OccupyDemocracy protesters have been systematically, if lawfully, degraded by local authorities. Their right to protest has been obscured by the jealous enforcement of laws relating to the use of tarpaulin, and to damage caused to private lawns. Even when police seemed to be "facilitating" their protest during the daytime talks and workshops from Saturday through Monday, the presence of up to a dozen policemen stationed at regular intervals around the site ascribed to the entire protest an aura of criminality, further emphasised by the confiscation of numerous banners and signs, including the group's "safer spaces" sign.

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The democratic right to protest should of course not be diminished by the nature of any particular group's demands, and it is highly ironic in the context of arguably "repressive" policing that #OccupyDemocracy are campaigning precisely against the fact that certain demands from particular groups of people are being heard, while those of the majority of ordinary people are not.

Nobody voted to be made homeless, hungry or unemployed. It is clear whose voices are being heard. We need to start a movement for real democracy. The voices of the majority have been ignored for too long. We need to give ourselves the tools to hold our politicians to account, and to end the corporate lobbying power that drowns our voices out.

[OccupyDemocracy.org.uk]

Perhaps it is immensely disrespectful to sit on Winston Churchill's statue and to tape signs onto his walking stick. Perhaps #OccupyDemocracy are just a bunch of dirty smelly hippy idealists... But what has democracy come to when our government refuses to facilitate and to dignify the spirit of dissent -- the quintessentially British spirit of dissent upon which so much of our Parliamentary tradition depends?... When protesters are forced to draw attention to themselves by whatever means necessary because their voices are not being heard?

Real democracy is messy, like the Houses of Parliament is rocky and uneven; an organic structure in the Gothic style... It should not be made clean, and it should not be made smooth. Winston Churchill, for one, was not afraid of the fight. And neither, one may hope, are #OccupyDemocracy.

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender...

[We shall fight on the beaches..., 1940]