Britain has a rich tradition of protest. From the Peterloo Massacre to the Suffragette movement; from mill workers taking a stand against slavery right up to the Moss Side riots of the early eighties, historically when this nation feels in its bones that a wrong needs righting we rise up, speak out.
It is pertinent incidentally, given the topic to hand, that all of the examples above began or happened in Manchester.
Yet that’s all changed these days and it’s hard to say why. It just has.
Because in the 21st century we’re still a people predisposed to protest – from grumbling on a social media post to assembling in our multitude through the streets of the capital to condemn an illegal war – but now there is a key and undermining difference to the demonstrations of old and that is our reaction from the cheap seats.
No longer do we support. No longer do we ally ourselves with fellow members of the public against the miasmic impurity and impunity of authority. No longer do we side with those who are just like us, individuals who are voiceless who have combined to make their message powerful.
Instead, we critique. We sit at home and watch clips on our phones and we ignore the cause and concentrate only on the effect. What is being protested barely matters anymore. What piques our interest is solely the ‘presentation’ of the protest itself and determining whether those involved are aligned to our thinking, whether that be a football allegiance or a political standpoint.
In short, no longer is it ‘us v them’. Now it is ‘us v us’ with ‘them’ subsequently allowed to carry on screwing both of us over.
A case in point occurred last Sunday at Old Trafford as a thousand-strong Manchester United supporters made their feelings known regarding their despised owners, the Glazers, and when a number of fans made it onto the pitch it soon became apparent that United’s fixture against Liverpool would have to be postponed.
With the game scheduled to be shown across the globe this was unquestionably the biggest success yet for the fans who have long railed against the unethical ownership model in place at their club.
In 2005 the US family ‘bought’ a controlling stake in Manchester United using money borrowed from the investment bank JP Morgan at a high rate of interest. This was a debt-leveraged buyout that has resulted in the club having to repay this interest from their organic profit ever since, and with bumper annual dividends paid out to the six Glazer siblings – who inherited the controlling shares following the death of their father Malcolm in 2014 – it means that over £1 billion has been drained out of the club just for the ‘privilege’ of having these remote and immensely unpopular figures at the helm.
Across the city, United’s neighbours have owners who invest substantial sums into the club, the players, and the community. All the Glazers do is take, take, take.
When it came to light that Joel Glazer was instrumental in the foiled attempt to form a European Super League a final straw was broken and the fans were suitably mobilized, with the forthcoming high-profile Liverpool game acting as the perfect opportunity to gain maximum exposure. To that end, in a game rife with unscrupulous and negligent owners, United supporters took a stand and did football proud.
Only that was not a view shared by many. Not when footage emerged of a bloke chucking some camera equipment over a barrier, breaking it in the process. And when a policeman was seen on the telly with a large cut down his face the cause of the protest was swiftly forgotten and we focused only on the effect. The protest was bad. They were in the wrong.
This is not to excuse the actions of the two individuals who damaged equipment and injured an officer simply doing his job. These actions are deplorable. Yet once again we failed to see the big picture. Once again, we obsessed and judged on incidents – as unsavoury as they were – instead of stepping back and discussing the much bigger concern in a grown-up manner. Frankly, if Twitter was around at the beginning of the 20th century women would never have gained the vote. We would have all been too appalled at a horse hurting itself as Emily Davison threw herself to her death.
This is exasperating and particularly so when the following two fundamental truths are acknowledged.
Firstly, we all can accept that Manchester United’s ownership model is abhorrent. We may know different degrees about it but deep down it’s undeniable that if such an immoral structure was in place at our club it would be us protesting; us disrupting a fixture with the intention of applying pressure on the board. And can you truthfully say that if a thousand or more agitators from your fan-base – with tensions rising sky-high – embarked on your ground, no-one would cross a line?
It also depresses that the widespread disapproval and distancing of United’s protest occurred just three weeks after football united to see off the Super League proposal.
Back then we were as one, for once, and we made a significant difference and righted a significant wrong. Only here tribalism returned with all the undermining and irrelevant whataboutery and charges of hypocrisy that comes with it.
1. United supporters, it was claimed, never protested when things were going their way.
This is simply not true as evidenced by violent clashes that accompanied the Glazers taking over in 2005 and a breakaway club formed that same year. United were pretty handy in that era if you recall. They were the dominant force in English football in fact.
2. United were the architects of their own demise by becoming a PLC in 1991 and thus making themselves susceptible to the rampant practices of capitalism. It was, in Facebook parlance, ‘their own fault’.
Let’s put this one down as an irrelevance shall we. After all, what club doesn’t reach for the stars, and which fan-base would have a problem with that?
3. Sky were going too easy on the protest, with Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher vociferously backing it. Would their coverage have been the same had it taken place at West Ham, let’s say, or Newcastle?
This is actually a fair point. It is. But again, we’re missing the big picture. Because if we had joined in condemnation of the United ownership model on social media last weekend – if we had shown solidarity with a hated rival – then would Mike Ashley, or any one of the numerous self-serving owners of football clubs up and down the country, have slept comfortably that night, knowing that millions of fans had dropped their allegiances and were coming for them?
We could have started at the top. Instead, we complained that we were starting at the top.
We could have made a real difference last weekend, that’s the top and bottom of it. Instead, while United supporters continued their city’s fine tradition to protest, the rest of us bitched and whined.