We should hope not – violent protest is the last thing we want to see – but could there be the equivalent of a Yellow Vest uprising in the UK? An aggressive, popular campaign against higher taxes, poor services and declining living standards? The closest reasonably recent parallel here was the fuel protests of 2000. But could we see something broader, like we’ve seen in France?
It’s generally a mistake to think you can translate one country’s political, economic and social culture to your own. British people have thankfully (usually) shunned direct, highly confrontational protests; and French politics and government administration are very different. But the Yellow Vest movement is interesting because the issues raised and the language used are similar to those that have been used by protest campaigns here in the last 20 years.
In France, working class and lower middle class people have come together to complain about rising taxes, especially fuel taxes, apparently out of touch elites making decisions that hit them hard in the pocket, and the decline of universal public services. People are right to point out there is no coherent political ideology behind the movement (although, perhaps it would be more accurate to say it doesn’t look coherent to those that think of politics on a classic left-right continuum). But the issues raised are not dissimilar to those that have been raised by fuel protesters, early UKIP campaigners, independent Mayors, and, of course the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
So, could the Yellow Vests arrive here? With the organising power of the internet available to all, you can never say for sure, but it seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, most of the working class and lower middle class are only now approaching their upper limits on tax. Many have been saying they’d be happy to pay more tax if they knew it would be ringfenced for the NHS, for example. And, consequently, the polls suggest they supported the Government’s announcement for £20 billion in new spending.
The second reason is that they know that this Government is keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of power. They know, therefore, that this Government is keeping taxes relatively lower than they would otherwise be – and they also (for now at least) doubt Corbyn’s ability to run public services effectively. They still doubt his leadership abilities and his general competence. It’s hard to generate anger against a sitting Government when you know the financial alternative would likely be worse.
But we’re not a million miles away. For such a movement to become viable, four trends would need to continue. The first is that there would need to be a big increase in irritation with spending on unreformed services. While the public gave the Government’s higher NHS spending their support, a giant caveat was attached. This was the clear warning that it had better work and that the NHS had better sort waste and mismanagement out. In focus groups on this issue around the time of the announcement, people were expressing their deep concern about NHS waste. If this spending does appear to go to waste, a backlash is possible.
The second trend is for Government to continue to charge people for services they once considered theirs “by right”. The anger directed at the Conservative Party at the last election over social care is an example of this phenomenon. People hate being made to pay for things that were previously “free”. For Londoners, the introduction of the new Ultra Low Emission Zone might fall into this category. Although it’s a Labour policy, it remains to be seen whether the Government will take some of the blame for “not stopping it”.
Thirdly, the cost of living would need to continue to rise – with significant, visible rises apparently marking a change, rather than a continued gentle increase. One thing the Government will be keeping an eye on is a possible increase in heating bills in early Spring. This might see an uptick and would irritate massively, particularly against the backdrop of a cold winter.
The fourth trend is for a continued disaffection with the political class. This has been developing for two decades now and it bubbles up to the surface occasionally. If a big chunk of the public – and the majority of working class voters – think that politicians have betrayed them on Brexit, they are likely to be much more open to direct protest than they were in the past. Even if we end up leaving the EU in a way that is acceptable to these Leave voters, it’s not impossible they will have concluded that it all happened despite the best efforts of much of the political class.
It’s a reasonable bet that political activists in the UK will try to artificially create a Yellow Vest movement here; it wouldn’t be a shock to see them appear, literally, on a small scale soon. But several things will have to happen before we see a mass movement. As you can see, it’s possible that we will be in such a place at some point. We should hope that the Government takes action to avert such a movement ever gaining ground.