Published on 14 Nov 2012 Sections , , ,

Do anti-austerity protests make a difference?

As protests against cuts and reform hit many parts of Europe, Channel 4 News considers if previous anti-austerity strikes – and even riots – have achieved anything.

An anti-austerity protester (Reuters)

Angry citizens from countries where governments are imposing so-called austerity measures have been making their fury known regularly for the two years, since it became clear that unprecedented economic actions would be needed to bring national finances under control.

From the UK to Greece to Spain (which is taking part in its second general strike of the year), clashes between the state and its people have become a routine feature of television news bulletins.

But aside from notable examples such as the Arab uprisings, how often does protest change policy or society? And specifically, have the protests against austerity made governments think again?

In the UK there have been a number of shows of dissent, from the Occupy protests outside St Paul’s cathedral and elsewhere, to the general strike by public sector workers in 2011. Both achieved much in the way of news coverage but little as far as policy shifts are concerned.

Professor Iain Begg, associate fellow on the Europe programme at the Chatham House think tank, told Channel 4 News: “On the whole, protests have not achieved much.

“In many countries the protesters fall into two groups; those who are ‘blameless’, who are having tax increases and public expenditure cuts foisted on them, and those who have lost their priveleged positions, such as public servants, because they’ve been mollycoddled – and by that I mean their pay and conditions were unsustainably generous in the first place.”

Small victories

Although there have been changes of government during this time, it is probably not true to say that these necessarily came about because of dissatisfaction over austerity specifically, but were reflections of unhappiness about the government itself.

But Prof Begg says small victories have been recorded: “There have been examples of backtracking by politicians. For example, in Portugal the prime minister was forced to change his plans to increase the amount of money that workers had to pay in their equivalent of national insurance contributions, while cutting those of employers after there were protests.”

Read more on the Europe-wide general strikes

The main European countries taking part in the 14 November strikes have different reasons to blame governments – though the treatment for these ills and the impact on citizens appears to be very similar.

Ultimately, however, votes on unpopular budgets continue to be taken, and ultimately passed, in national parliaments, despite stories of intense hardship ordinarily unfamiliar to European ears.

Iain Begg thinks that what protest can achieve, at least as far as derailing austerity plans goes, is very little: “Basically, if what the government is proposing is silly, then a protest may perhaps encourage a slight change in direction.

“But if there isn’t really an alternative to the fundamental trajectory then they’re just really lessening the pain at the edges.”