Pete Cannell reflects on being involved in the large protests around the Make Poverty History campaign and the G8 Alternatives that took place in Scotland 10 years ago. This is part of a new series in which activists will consider different moments and forms of activity they’ve taken part in over the years.
Just ten years ago, on 2 July, a quarter of a million people marched in Edinburgh under the banner of Make Poverty History. The demonstration looped round through the city centre and was so big that the front of the march had arrived back on the Meadows before the last person had left. A decade later it’s worth thinking about what was achieved and what we can learn from 2005. This is my personal reflection drawing involvement as an Edinburgh based activist in G8 Alternatives.
Looking back it’s amazing how much happened in one place in a small period of time. The day after the Make Poverty History march, a Sunday, we held the G8 Alternatives Counter Summit packing out the Usher Hall and all the large lecture theatres at Edinburgh University. Anti-capitalist speakers came from around the world. Most of them ended up staying with friends and neighbours in my part of the city. The same day we marched against war. Monday, we were at Faslane saying No to Trident. Tuesday, at the Dungavel detention centre in solidarity with asylum seekers. Wednesday was the day we marched on the G8.
Gleneagles where the G8 leaders met is in the Perthshire countryside and we had around a 100 buses booked from Edinburgh. As people walked and marched to the pick up points that morning the police declared that we had called the demo off and told some of the bus companies not to turn up. But we organised to get them back and in the end the majority got through to the demo. Some drivers using their local knowledge to take narrow country lanes and avoid police roadblocks.
The G8 had declared that they were going to talk about climate, debt and war. On our side we drew inspiration from Seattle and the Social Forums and the mass movement against the Iraq war. But we had also seen huge turnouts in British cities for the Jubilee protests calling for a commitment to reducing debt. The anti-capitalist and anti-war mass movements hugely influenced the politics of the street in 2005 but it was primarily the churches and the NGOs who built the Make Poverty History march. However, I think the success and the spirit of Make Poverty History and the G8 events was precisely because people were influenced by all these factors. Looking at old photos it’s striking how Stop the War placards are present in every section of the march. I remember making up 5000 of the Fight Poverty not War placards and feeling overwhelmed by the weight of wood and card. When we dumped them on the Meadows where the march was forming up they just evaporated from the pile so that within half an hour none were left.
But while anti-imperialists and church groups marched together there was sharp battle of ideas going on. Gordon Brown was desperate to reestablish credibility for New Labour after the debacle of the Iraq war. He pushed throughout to keep the NGOs on message so that Make Poverty History was a token of support for change at the G8. In the build up to the march and the protests NGOs and anti capitalists organising around G8 Alternatives found few opportunities to work together. Indeed there were two counter-summits although the NGO organised event was much smaller than that organised by G8 Alternatives.
All of the hype was on the debt and hardly anything on Climate Change and War. Once the summit was over Blair and Brown claimed a victory with commitments to debt relief that were largely followed through. There has been some progress on the Millennium Development Goals. On one measure extreme poverty has halved worldwide. But although the British aid budget has increased to 0.7% of GDP a commitment to development delivered through the neo-liberal paradigm has meant that the gap between rich and poor has grown. The richest 80 individuals in the world now have the same wealth as the poorest 50% (3.5 billion). The wealth of these 80 individuals doubled between 2009 and 2014. A grotesque statistic when 2.5 billion people worldwide have no access to basic sanitation. And of course the focus on a marketised strategy to tackle carbon reduction, and its absolute failure, means that in effect we have lost ten years.
G8 Alternatives was the idea of a small number of people on the far left. We felt that when the world came to our city if we simply held a few meetings we would be irrelevant. So we thought big – we booked rooms for thousands not for tens or hundreds. We operated by consensus and held together a coalition of individuals from different traditions in a principled and highly effective way. While many of us were in left wing organisations, those groups were mainly on the sidelines and were not thinking through the longer-term lessons and strategy that we need. But if there was no organisational legacy, there are tens of thousands who carry the experience into the struggles of 2015 and beyond.