Protests against corporate greed and inequality have spread from Wall Street to Britain. Political Editor Jonathan Walker talks to demonstrators
Johnny spent Monday night sleeping under a pile cardboard. He didn’t have a tent, but didn’t regret making the journey from Staffordshire to soak up the “festival atmosphere” and protest against the billions poured into failing banks.
Aaron was also making do without a tent after somebody stole his belongings on the train from Coventry to London.
Luckily, he made friends among the protesters camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral, in the heart of London, and they offered to let him share theirs.
Both young men were among the hundreds taking part in protests in London’s financial district, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street events in the US.
Originally, the plan was to occupy the London Stock Exchange, but the Metropolitan Police prevented that. Instead, up to 500 demonstrators were camped outside the front steps of St Paul’s, where they won the blessing of the Rev Dr Giles Fraser, the cathedral’s Canon Chancellor and a regular on Thought for the Day.
But what do they want? And is the growth of so-called “anti-capitalist” protests a sign that the economic system is in need of fundamental reform – or replacement with something new?
Of course, individual protesters have different reasons for being there. But a statement apparently drawn up through a meeting of the “occupiers” – following discussions on the steps of St Paul’s – set out a number of goals.
They include “structural change towards authentic global equality. The world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich”.
The statement also said: “The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them.” And another demand was: “We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis.”
Johnny, a 23-year-old graduate from Eccleshall, near Stone, was realistic about what the demonstration would achieve.
He said: “I believe in this but I’m not naive. I don’t think we are going to bring down capitalism.”
But he did believe the current system has to change.
“The way the Government bailed out the banks – they are cutting everything else. The priority was to help the banks.”
He told me his name was Johnny Remlap, although it was not clear to me whether this was a pseudonym.
He said he graduated earlier this year from Imperial College with a degree in chemistry and returned home for a break before looking for a job, when a friend convinced him to come to London and join the camp.
He said: “I am enjoying this – the festival atmosphere. It’s not a utopia here. There are people building up their little empires.
“But we are demonstrating how a different way of life can work. I don’t really think democracy works. We don’t really live in a democracy, when you consider the number who don’t vote. Some people don’t take part because they became disillusioned with politics but many just aren’t interested. They would rather vote in The X Factor.”
In America, protesters occupying Wall Street claim to represent “the 99 per cent” – in contrast to the one per cent of the population that owns so much of the nation’s wealth and has, so it is claimed, an enormous influence over the nation’s Government.
And statistics show that we in Britain also live in an unequal society. The total wealth of the United Kingdom was estimated at £8.958 trillion, according to the Government’s Wealth and Assets Survey, published in 2009. But the wealthiest ten per cent of households owned £3.955 trillion between them, about 44 per cent of the total.
The figures, based on surveys carried out between 2006 and 2008, are the nearest thing we have to a detailed survey of wealth in the UK.
But they were said to underestimate the wealth of the very richest – and the level of inequality on society – because they did not include trusts, which tend to be held by the wealthiest households.
Another way of examining inequality is to look at individual households and what they own.
The poorest one per cent of the households actually have negative wealth of £3,840 or more. In other words, their debts are higher than the value of everything they own. And 1.6 per cent of the population has a net value of zero or less.
Meanwhile, the top ten per cent of households are worth £853,300 or more. But you can be in the richest ten per cent of society and still be a long way away from the very top – because the richest one per cent of households have wealth of £2.6 million or more. This doesn’t just suggest there is a massive gap between the rich and “the poor”. It suggests there is a massive gap between the rich and the overwhelming majority of society.
Consider that, if your household has wealth totalling £389,000 or more, you are in the top 30 per cent. It means seven out of ten households are poorer than you.
But there would still be a massive gap between your household and the top one per cent.
Do the protesters represent the country as a whole in their demands for change?
The idea that the nation is losing faith in the economic system was a feature of the keynote speeches from both major party leaders during the recent conference system. David Cameron told the Conservative faithful: “Normally, after a while, things pick up. Strong growth returns. People get back into work. This time, it’s not like that. And people want to know why the good times are so long coming.”
Opposition leader Ed Miliband told Labour delegates that Britain was undergoing “a quiet crisis” in which people saw “an economy and a society too often rewarding not the right people with the right values, but the wrong people with the wrong values”.
Maybe the occupation of the London Stock Exchange will succeed in changing the world.
But campaigners are not expecting miracles. Johnny told me that, before long, he would be forced to leave the protest and start putting his degree to good use by getting a job.
And he admitted: “I think we are going to have to work within the system. I don’t think it is coming down any time soon.”