From first light in Edinburgh city centre, it was obvious that something was up. Every government office, each law court, museum, clinic and hospital, had its own little crowd, the gaggle of people that signified the biggest public sector strike for a generation was under way.
The last time people came together en masse like this was — as many Scots would have it — in the dark days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
Yesterday’s action, like those of the 1980s, might simply be caricatured as a battle between resolute government and self-serving union leaders. But now, as then (in Scotland at least) it would be a foolish politician who chose to ignore the sense of dignified outrage among these protesters.
By the end of the afternoon, the strikers’ case against government attacks on public sector pensions had been articulated by many an earnest speaker. Hours before in the bright morning sunshine, Alex McKay, a picket outside the High Court, put it as well as anyone.
“Public sector workers are just a ridiculously easy target for the government,” said Mr McKay, who on any other day would wear a little white wig, and go about his business as a clerk of the court. “They don’t look at Trust Funds, or stopping tax frauds, they just take the easy option.
“The Government like to play off the private sector and the public sector, but the truth is we’re all in the same boat. The people who run supermarkets might say ‘Well, we pay a huge amount of tax’, but it is the government who has to fund tax credits, to help out all the low paid staff who work for them. We should come together and say, ‘Enough is enough’.”
This was a protest, that, like the beer adverts of old, hit parts of the establishment that other protests don’t hit. It wasn’t just the courts that suffered. A mass walkout by 34 members of UCATT closed the stonemasons and carpentry workshop at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s residence in Edinburgh; Pete Smith, the only carpenter at Edinburgh Castle withdrew his labour for the day.
Nurses were quick to try to scotch the notion that they had put lives at risk or had even so much as upset a passing patient.
At the Edinburgh Eye Pavilion, Paula Johnston, a Unison shop steward, said that members had decided not to picket outside the Sick Kids Hospital, because it was “inappropriate to picket a paediatric hospital or alarm the kids at all”.
Outside the Blood Transfusion Centre, another health service picket, Tom Hiddleston, made a different kind of point. “We’re allowing the collection of apheresis platelets,” he said, “the kind of red blood cells that which might be used in children’s operations of cancer treatments.”
Gradually, to the toots of support from passing motorists, all these people assembled themselves into a march of 10,000, delighted apparently to find themselves among so many of like mind. Among them were many who might be have once considered themselves Conservative, or Liberal Democrat, parties which have become endangered species in Scotland.
But it is not only the Coalition Government who the strikers have in their sights. The SNP administration at Holyrood, whose ministers spent much the day criss-crossing picket lines are also under scrutiny.
“We welcome the verbal support of many of the issues from the Scottish Government but this is about actions,” said Jude Ritchie, Edinburgh organiser for the PCS trade union.
“If they just pass on the cuts that will make no difference to our members. They are better than the Tories, but they can’t just pass the buck.”
Pic by James Glossop
Pic by James Glossop