That was the Billy Bragg song covered by a young folk singer in front of thousands of supporters at the Scotland United Against Austerity rally in George Square last Saturday. He was one of many inspiring young people who played a key part in the event as a speaker/contributor or staffing the stalls of the diverse civic society organisations out in force. One of the millions of young people across the UK who – despite already being hit hard by cuts to education and welfare as well as limited employment opportunities - are at greatest risk from further austerity measures.
The simplicity of this song’s message and the passion with which he sung it, for me, really captured the climate of this event, and of a wider progressive, citizen-led movement in Scotland with social justice at its heart. There is a palpable sense amongst people in Scotland that social change is urgently needed and, even more importantly, a growing conviction that it might actually possible for citizens to initiate it. Political rule is in the process of being shaken down from its pedestal by citizens. The stage which this young man shared with a number of impressive contributors throughout the day, was relatively modest. There were no celebrity endorsements or fancy visuals yet still attracted a crowd or thousands. The sheer volume of people and the atmosphere of solidarity ignited an excitement about what politics is supposed to be– the voice of ‘the people’. Politics is only complicated, intimidating and bureaucratic because politicians make it that way. This union organised event was the antidote to deliberate over-complication of issues (particularly morally questionable decisions and policies) that generations of politicians have used, and continue to use, to keep people in their place.
The language that is used by the current Conservative Government purposely detracts from real issues experienced by the most vulnerable in our society. David Cameron and George Osborne continually boast about economic growth and how benefits cuts will encourage people back to work, when we know that people are suffering at the hands of an austerity obsessed government. An audience member on a recent episode of Question Time told Secretary of State, Justine Greening that her friend, who has a disability and is unable to work, can no longer leave the house due to harsh benefits and public sector cuts. Greening’s response was that figures show social care is improving. Social care is improving when people, like the woman in question, tell you that their quality of life has improved, not deteriorated. Yet, language used to deliberately conceal real life issues works – millions of people voted Tory on the basis of a growing economy. Personally, I don’t understand much about the economy. But I do know things can’t be that great when I have to pay out of my own pocket to print a modest amount of necessary learning materials for the students I teach.
In complete contrast to political jargon, SUAA gave a platform to everyday activists, all of whom put across convincing and powerful political messages borne of first-hand experience. The speeches of representatives from the striking Ninewells Porters and the founder of pro-independence Freedom Square Facebook page, Jordan Deehan, were plain and simple yet far from dumbed down. Eloquent and articulate, their words striking, inspiring and, most importantly, honest. The standout speaker of the day for me was Sooki Singh of the More Than Zero campaign, describing the ‘bad bosses’ who exploit workers with minimum wage and zero hours contracts, as ‘bullies’. Stories of young bar staff walking the 5-mile journey home at 1am because they can’t afford to use half of their minimum wage earnings on a taxi, and of employers forcing staff to pay for their own uniforms were truly shocking. She is standing up for people who are silenced by corrupt employers and a bystander government; those for whom complaining might be treading on a fine line between 20 hours this week and none the next, between survival and poverty.
Some might say that the refrain ‘Which Side Are You On’ is an over-simplistic view of how things work in decision-making. Yet when it comes to fairness and equality, there are only two sides. You either believe that everyone has equal human rights or you don’t. Austerity cuts punish the most vulnerable in our society while perpetuating the entrenched free reign of the political and economic elite, morally and financially.
On the afternoon of the rally my dad sent me the first text from his new phone which he bought for £2.50 after ditching a bells-and-whistles Smartphone which he couldn’t work. It simply said “Down with austerity, up with the people”. It’s people who matter. Whether young or old, working or unemployed, in Shetland or in Sheffield. Don’t be distracted by political language intended to divide - be on their side.