Whatever happened to political protest?

Saturday 3 November, 14:0015:00, National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1EWUK satellites

This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Edinburgh – buy tickets here.

Recent years have seen something of a revitalisation of political protests and marches, from Black Lives Matter in the USA, the Women’s Marches around the world, protests against Brexit and in support of Scottish independence, and even an international protest organised by scientists in defence of evidence. Giving the lie to the idea that people are apathetic about politics today, millions have taken part in protests for a variety of causes in recent years.

Protest today doesn’t just mean taking to the street. ‘Clicktivism’ is one such case: the seemingly endless appetite for online petitions – both state-sponsored and from organisations like 38 Degrees – means that with little effort anyone with a laptop or a phone can easily become a protester making headlines. Meanwhile, online activism pursued through social media such as such as Twitter and Facebook has been credited with playing a key role from the Arab Spring through to Labour’s 2017 General Election campaign.

Yet for all the admiration for such attempts to build pressure for change, doubts remain as to the longer-term impact that online protests make in achieving political change. While many of today’s protests are well attended and subject to widespread media coverage, some question if they are becoming too superficial and ephemeral, with little or no long-lasting legacy or impact.

Is a protest a failure if it doesn’t lead to changes – or if successes are overturned, as in Egypt after the Arab Spring? How should protesters organise themselves – or should they eschew formal organisation, as with Occupy? Should protesters be happy with ‘sending messages’ – as was the case with the Women’s Marches – or should they aim at more comprehensive goals? Just what is protest, historically and today?