Every Thursday evening as the clock strikes 8pm, the eerie silence of deserted streets, closed businesses and dormant vehicles in lockdown Britain is momentarily interrupted by a deafening crescendo of noise.
In what has become the largest outpouring of collective action in our nation’s history, millions of weary but hardened citizens – many whom would not normally engage in such activity – venture onto their doorsteps and balconies to clap, bang pots and pans, and set off firecrackers in a collective gratitude to NHS staff and keyworkers who put their lives on the line fighting coronavirus.
While #ClapForCarers has revitalised neighbourliness and community spirit across the land, boosted morale among careworkers and definitively smashed the right-wing myth that British people are somehow too reserved to partake in mass action, the question remains what its long-term legacy will be.
To Clap or Not to Clap?
In recent days there have even been calls for #ClapforCarers to end. Increasingly, public health campaigners are worried that the clapping has masked shocking government failures.
These include its ‘herd immunity’ strategy and the subsequent 11-day delay in imposing a lockdown, the lack of PPE provision has left NHS workers acutely exposed to contracting the virus, the lies over testing strategies, the attempts to impose NHS charges on immigrant workers, Dominic Cummings’ blatant violation of lockdown rules, and a litany of other outrages.
‘Stop’ advocates are sickened by the sight of Tories joining the clapping when it is they and the government who are responsible for the above failings, and worry that clapping is being manipulated at best – or, at worst, to join in is to be complicit in the government’s “we’re all in this together” narrative.
The crux of their argument is that rather than join the weekly clapping, we should instead take practical measures to support the NHS, like demanding that doctors, nurses and careworkers are adequately remunerated and that the government is held accountable for their catastrophic mishandling of the crisis.
While we surely all agree with these concerns, the question that should concern us as socialists is ‘what is to be done?’ The instinctive answer to reject any call to demobilise must surely be: “how on earth can any self-respecting socialist not want to be part of a popular action to support the NHS and celebrate its workforce?”
Furthermore, for those of us who have spent years or decades campaigning to protect the NHS and opposing the neoliberal assault on public service workers, it seems simply too obvious that withdrawing into our homes is not going to change anything for the better.
The third reason that the ‘stop’ side is misguided is because they underplay some of the movement’s fantastic successes. Society has become so atomised and individualised under neoliberalism in the last forty years that the regular Thursday claps have forced millions to engage with our neighbours for the first time. This must be celebrated even if it leaves political questions unanswered – especially under lockdown.
This isn’t to say that the political content hasn’t been limited, so far. But some good has come of it. There isn’t a child in Britain who isn’t going to grow up thinking the NHS is an amazing achievement that needs to be protected. My four-year-old enjoys banging his saucepan with me each week and excitedly hunts for the rainbows other children have drawn in their front windows down the street.
The conversations we’ve had about it have led him to the conclusion that he wants to become a doctor when he grows up. These realities themselves act as firewalls against attempts to undermine our publicly-funded NHS, now or in the future.
The clapping has also reinvigorated communal activity. Local Mutual Aid networks have sprung up everywhere; street self-help WhatsApp groups and local barter clubs have become commonplace in the lives of millions of ordinary people.
Over 750,000 individuals have signed up to NHS volunteering schemes amidst this atmosphere. In the intense political polarisation from Brexit, two bitterly fought general elections and a decade of austerity, the act has brought together people in a way that isn’t just parochial and is hopefully not temporary.
Many of the attempts to demobilise clappers have been by presenting the argument as a false dichotomy. Expressing our weekly support for the NHS and making political demands on the government is, we are told, mutually exclusive. Perhaps most the most dangerous current of this sentiment is from none other than the founder of #ClapForCarers, Annemarie Plas, who has called for the clapping to end this week over the clapping becoming “politicised” and “negative”.
While Plas deserves credit for initiating the campaign, her logic is that she feels that we have shown key workers our appreciation and it is now the responsibility of “the people that are in power… to reward and give them the respect they deserve.” This is to assume that we’re living in a delegative democracy where the Tories have suddenly become the guardians of our welfare, and can be trusted to protect the NHS. It is not only naïve, but a monumental error.
Reclaiming and Politicising a Movement
So where does this leave us? If the Tories have managed to hijack this grassroots, citizen-led movement for their own political ends, the answer is not to let them do so by withdrawing. Instead, we must reclaim it in a way that maintains the momentum and mass participation of previously disengaged people, but that also taps in to growing national disillusionment with the government and become a force for holding the Tories to account.
In attempting to save lives and protect the NHS from government attempts to privatise it or run it as a charity. #ClapForCarers must necessarily become politicised, rather than maintaining clapping as a mere show of gratitude.
To do so, my proposal is to comply with Plas’ wish and end #ClapForCarers this week, then launch the birth – or, rather, rebirth – of the British doorstep pots and pans protests from next Thursday.
This involves the separation of the clap from the saucepan. The use of these as collective action tools has become convoluted in recent weeks. But there is a history of the beating of saucepans to express political disapproval.
It first started in 1832, during protests against Louis Philippe I’s regime. They were used for the same purpose during the 1961 protests for Algerian independence, and in the north of Ireland during the Troubles, where the bashing of bin lids warned nationalist neighbourhoods that the British Army were on their way.
They are now a common form of street protest across South America today, including to shame alleged perpetrators of war crimes in post-military dictatorship countries, and gained popularity in Argentina during the 2001 uprising and more recently in Iceland during its 2008 Kitchenware Revolution, Spain in the 2011 indignados protests and Greece during resistance to its debt crisis.
Although the right have sometimes utilised the tactic, this is the Left’s terrain, and an international left-wing protest tool against corrupt governments, neoliberal financial institutions and human rights abusers. Yet with the exception of the 2010 anti-tax evasion protests outside Vodafone and Topshop and the Jubilee Debt Campaign’s 2013 pickets outside of London-based North American vulture funds, saucepan protests never caught on here.
All the more strange, since this form of protest traces its origin to medieval Britain. Rough music processions, or “skimmingtons”, involved “saucepans, frying pans, pokers and tongs… which are beaten upon in ludicrous processions,” recounted Francis Grose when describing how English villagers would meet to publicly ridicule those accused of licentious marital conduct in 1796.
It is strange that it has taken until Covid-19 for this particular British export to return home. But it is important: symbols and imagery that saucepan endear, draw support to and help frame protests in ways that ordinary people can relate to.
With the OBR projecting a 35% slump in GDP in the coming months, the most catastrophic decline and prolonged recession in the history of British capitalism awaits us. There will be voices at the heart of government pushing for increased austerity, enhanced spending cuts and further deregulation at precisely the time when the opposite is needed.
Just like across the world, where these sorts of activities offered ways for the less engaged and more politically alienated people to engage and participate in ongoing political processes, we need to ensure that these collective repertoires of action can offer potential for Britain’s progressive social movements too.