The rise of single-issue protest groups may be seen as a good sign of an active citizenry. But, says Wyn Grant, it can impede the political process.
The landscape of protest group activity in the United Kingdom gives the appearance of dramatic change in recent years. Single-issue groups that focus on one specific cause and employ a range of direct-action techniques, from the conventional protest march to violence against property and people, seem to be on the rise. Animal-rights protests arouse particular passion, whether it be the debate over hunting with dogs or research involving animals. But the repertoire of protest is not confined to radical groups. It extends to defenders of the status quo such as advocates of the right to continue hunting with dogs.
There is nothing new about the use of a range of different forms of protest in the UK, although it does seem to come in waves of activity. In terms of mass movements, it dates as far back as the Chartists in the first half of the 19th century. In the inter-war period, there were violent clashes between Sir Oswald Moseley's blackshirts and their opponents. Ramblers have long engaged in illegal mass trespasses to press their case for access to the countryside. The current cycle of direct action can trace its origins back to the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the late 1950s, which pioneered new methods of civil disobedience.
The general growth of new forms of protest may be related to a shift from a "politics of production" to a "politics of collective consumption". The politics of production was centred on disputes between employers and workers over control of the production process and distribution of the economic surplus obtained from it. Typical issues that arose were incomes policies, industrial-relations law, worker participation and systems of subsidy.
The politics of collective consumption is concerned with the externalities of the production process, with collective goods or goods that are at least partial public goods. It generates a form of politics that is less amenable to bargaining than the politics of production. This opens a space for direct action. It brings into the political process new actors with new and less well understood expectations, and with less willingness to adhere to the conventional rules of the game.
In part, the growth of the politics of collective consumption goes hand in hand with the decline of the politics of production, which itself reflects a shift from a manufacturing to a service economy. This created a vacuum in the political process, and policy entrepreneurs who formed new non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace were able to seize the opportunity that was presented.
Greater affluence also changed the priorities of consumers. Consider the politics of food. In the immediate postwar period, consumers were concerned only with getting a sufficient quantity of nutritious food. Production-maximising agricultural policies reflected that preference. As purchasing power increased, consumers became more discerning and more interested in the quality of food - an interest that extended to the welfare of animals and the impact of modern farming practices on the environment.
Modern forms of direct action usually aim to secure media attention, often in terms of air time on television. But it is very easy to confuse the visible face of protest group activity with the whole picture of pressure-group campaigning. Some of the most influential campaigning goes on largely unobserved. For example, the Confederation of British Industry has enjoyed a close relationship with the Blair government, and the National Farmers' Union has continued to benefit from access to ministers up to the prime minister himself.
Moreover, direct action may achieve little more than drawing attention to an issue and getting it on the political agenda. For several years, there was a vigorous campaign against the building of new roads at several sites. Protesters were extricated from trees and tunnels with much difficulty and at great expense. The protests attracted considerable publicity, and one protester, Swampy, became a kind of green icon in the media for a time. However, all the roads against which protests were directed were built. Admittedly, the road-building programme was reduced by the Major government, but this was for a variety of reasons, as research by Nick Robinson at the University of Leeds has shown.
The campaign against genetically modified crops may have a greater chance of success than the anti-roads campaign. Because of their location, the GM test sites in the countryside are difficult to secure and relatively easy to destroy. Juries have accepted public-interest defences against criminal damage. Above all, the protesters have broad support from public opinion, alarmed by the prospect of so-called Frankenstein foods. It will be interesting to see if this is enough if the United States decides to challenge the European Union's de facto moratorium on approving new GM crop varieties at the World Trade Organisation.
But why is direct action so popular if it is no more successful than conventional methods of influencing decision-makers, and perhaps less so? Some of the literature suggests that it represents a form of "lifestyle politics". Participating in protests is enjoyed for its own sake, regardless of the outcome.
Participants in direct action are not necessarily interested in changing public opinion or influencing decision-makers. Their action is "direct" in the sense that it is designed to prevent what is seen as a morally reprehensible activity, whether it is the building of a new road or research involving animals.
The rise in the number and memberships of various new forms of non-governmental organisations has coincided with the decline of more traditional forms of political participation such as membership of political parties. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds now has more members than the three main political parties combined. If one looks at this development alongside the low turnout in the last general election and survey evidence that shows no decline in levels of interest in politics, this might suggest some decline of trust in traditional democratic structures. But another way of looking at these trends would be to say that citizens increasingly see themselves as consumers of public services and that single-issue interest groups offer the best way of articulating their specific demands.
These trends pose some problems for the operation of democratic government. Political parties have traditionally had the function of "aggregating" citizen demands, bundling various requests into an overall package in which choices are made about priorities. Single-interest groups do not have to confront the problem of deciding between different demands in a context in which resources are limited. They do not have to consider the cost of achieving their aim. Thus, while political parties have to decide about allocating money to different parts of the health service and to the health service compared with other forms of public expenditure, single-issue groups can make an emotionally compelling and media-grabbing case for more money to be spent on treating a particular disease.
Public expectations are rising all the time. The difficulty of meeting them leads to frustration that protest movements exploit. If direct action is seen to be successful, an imitation effect occurs. And politics becomes increasingly difficult for politicians to manage.
Wyn Grant is professor of politics at the University of Warwick and author of Pressure Groups and British Politics (Palgrave, 2000).