Coming back into town via Fenchurch Street Station — neither easy nor pleasant to arrange, as it involves spending time in Essex, but a gunsel’s must-see* — there was no mistaking that the town was getting ready for an epic festival of biffo, when the G20 convenes on April Fools Day. Large squares of plywood have been nailed over the fronts of shops and pubs, with loosely-hinged doors.

Starbucks and McDonalds, favoured targets, haven’t bothered, and look ready to just take whatever comes. The main contenders for maximum force protection appear to be electronics stores with stuff worth stealing (by no means all of them), and pubs with some of the old curved and bevelled glass. I would like to think that the comrades would exempt these from trashing, but since a vocal minority of the crowd will be cider-thugs with dogs on strings, that cannot be presumed.

Last time there was this much aggro here was J18, on June 18 1999, the “carnival against capitalism” — and the first such occasion to get the letter-number designation, which carried on for a few years afterwards. Your correspondent was there, coincidentally enough after an all-night shift writing financial news for a global banking website, and was as clueless about what was about to take place as anyone. I remember seeing a giant bubble-making machine and thinking that, like the face-painting and jugglers of 80s demos, it marked the moment of defeat — at about which point a garbage bin went through the window of a car dealership, and it was on.

Though newspapers had warned city workers to dress down, no-one had really expected the whole place to explode in such a joyful destruction of property — least of all the bankers themselves, who had been pouring champagne out of windows on the crowd, and throwing photocopied fifty quid notes. Then they realised they were trapped in the buildings, and the giggling stopped.

This time, the forces of darkness are unlikely to be caught out so easily. Though the split focus of the event – the G20 meeting is in Docklands, areas of which are under lockdown, while the main protest will converge on the Bank of England, if it’s still operating by Wednesday — will test police numbers to the limit, there will be private security guards in extremis.

That’s a new development since the late 90s. Another one is the post 9/11 terror laws, which allow for a month’s detention without trial, and which can be applied as easily to a number of anarchist groups as to radical Islamists. Indeed a “cell” of five in Plymouth have already been detained, after one of them was caught, allegedly graffiti-ing, and a search of their squat revealed as well as, almost certainly, dogs on strings, fake weapons, pamphlets urging violence etc etc. Since UK authorities have used the anti-terror laws on everyone including people who don’t recycle their garbage, it must be said they cause less foreboding than was otherwise envisaged.

But of course, the home team (that’s the protestors) also have the advantage of technology that was in its infancy — disposable mobiles, messaging, mobile internet, twitter — to keep running co-ordination as fluid and fast as possible.

Mind you, if the joint is trashed, it could hardly look worse than the rest of the country. By now, the recession is really starting to become visible, with the metal shutters down on as many as one in four shops on some high-streets. With bad news rolled out daily — Scotland’s largest building society, the Dunfermline, collapsed yesterday morning and will be broken up following a government takeover — the powers-that-be are finding it increasingly difficult to construct protestors as extreme and unrepresentative.

The exhibition warm-up match — a “Put People First” march by 35,000 on Saturday — was organised by dozens of different groups, and for the first time I can remember the police estimate of numbers tallied with that of the protestors’, which suggests that the elite are sucking up to those defined against them.

Indeed, one of the reasons that everything is so live at the moment, is because leaders have had such a lack of confidence in their own position that they will not unequivocally condemn such property damage as has already occurred. When ex-RBS head, Sir Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin’s Edinburgh house was attacked, leaving the banker (out of the country at the time) reportedly “shaken”, Gordon Brown was asked if he felt any sympathy for him. “On the matter of property damage” Brown intoned, “it is indefensible” — i.e. you’re on your own mate.

The ludicrous process whereby Brown and others have shifted blame and anger onto the greed of bankers (sharks gotta swim…), and run to the head of the torch-wielding mob may have given them some political breathing-space (though not much), but the effect of it has been to give away a degree of legitimacy against direct action.

That is always the final stage of any government of course — and Brown’s government is living up to the hoary old schtick of becoming your own opposition. Brown is in the papers today calling for the second home allowance for MPs to be abolished, as if he were someone in the public gallery rather than THE PRIME MINISTER. The issue has gone double-plus live after Home Secretary Jacqui Smith (already under investigation for a faux second home) was discovered to have presented an expenses account that included five pay-per-view cable movies, two of them p-rn, watched at her second home.

Turned out it was Smith’s husband (who is also her office manager) who’d watched the movies, which was doubly embarrassing for Smith, as she’s been waging a puritan feminist war against the s-x industry for the last two years. “He’ll be on the couch for a while” various commentators said of Mr Smith. Well of course he will — he’s got access to p-rn. Let’s face it you can’t have a televisual tug in a chair, now can you?

More embarrassing I thought was the revelation that two of the other movies were Ocean’s Thirteen, watched twice. Twice? Could you not follow it the first time? How dumb would you have to be? Dumb enough to get the taxpayer pay for your p-rn, I guess.

Brown, who had hoped that the G20 would be an occasion for him to strut the world stage and project a sense of natural leadership against the whippersnapper Cameron, is not faring well out of all this. He was hoping that the G20 would agree to his plan for a global stimulus package, one which included a specific provision for aid to developing nations to give the process an ethical dimension, or gloss.

But the European nations — who form a hugely disproportionate part of the G20 – have knocked this on the head (scenes of wild rejoicing from the Right: actually it’s because these countries, whether run by right or left, have so much government spending anyway that there ain’t room for no more) — leaving the G20 to be what it really is, a powerless gabfest, representing nothing. Paradoxically, the only thing that’s giving it meaning is the importance given it by the protest (which is one of the reasons why one focus of the protest is the City, far away from the actual meeting).

Obama, meanwhile, after an awful few weeks, has started to take the lead again, taking the fight to the US car industry in a way that Bush, that pitiful piece of dead skin, utterly failed to do. The effective head of GM, Rick Wagoner, has been forced out, and Obama has read them the riot act about the fact that there has to be some real change. Muscling Wagoner out has led to shrieks of “Bolshevism” from the Right – even though Bush’s final bank bailout involved the heads of nine banks being escorted into the White House and told that they were about to sign over a slice of equity to the govt or else – but it’s the first sign of real muscle in the domestic sphere.

That is vintage Obama, and was no doubt wholly influenced by my resolute critique here last week. More realistically, it is part of the Obama rhythm, established in the election — just when everyone around him is tearing their hair out with frustration at the lack of action, he gathers his thoughts and takes a clear course of action. If the US right were able to restrain their own demons for long enough, they’d notice that that is as much to the advantage of their ideas as ours. Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, for example, unveiled last week, is the only joined up military-political strategy the US has had for that region in the eight years — eight years — since it invaded it.

Of course, it’s a strategy that has to be opposed utterly — the only moral policy towards Afghanistan is immediate withdrawal. That bifurcation emphasises the nature of Obama — that he is not the 21st century FDR, but its LBJ, changing the US at home, while pursuing an imperialist strategy abroad — and that opposition and support of his project has to be similarly bifurcated.

What’s really hilarious is that the Right’s hatred of Obama, of who he is, where he’s from, what he says — is so deep that they can’t they won’t recognise that he’s delivered them what they’ve been howling for from their cipher of a leader, urgently, since 2002 — an idea about what the Afghanistan war is for, what its purpose rationale strategy is. If they admitted that that was now coming from a black ex-community organiser from Chicago, they’d dissolve into a pillar of salt immediately.

In that respect, if anyone wants some cheap laffs, take a look at Mark Steyn’s contributions to the National Review‘s rolling blog, The Corner. Steyn — who occasionally appears on Lateline and other shows, with a silk handkerchief in his pocket, looking like a four-star hotel concierge whose life’s fulfilment is to get you coke and a hooker at 1am — is the ever-reliable index of self-defeating Republican hysteria, who now believes that Obama’s programme (in which US govt share of the economy would go from 22% to 28%, from a 50-year high of 26%) is the equivalent of the Bolshevik program of 1917. That’s what constitutes Obama’s opposition at the moment, and if it keeps up, the Dems will be in power until 2050.

Ah god where was I? Ah yes, the paradoxes of politics. They will be out on the street in the next seventy-two hours, people who had never thought they would demonstrate, manifesting themselves, out of the sheer anger at being taken for fools. There is only one place to be in this struggle — with the surging humanity, battering against the plate glass of power, no matter how wrong-headed or simplistic many of their ideas are. But in the interim it will be interesting to see what the leaders of the free world do, in their fortress-like conference centre, protected from their own public by a three-thousand strong ring of police. Talk about your Shoeburyness!

*As Fenchurch was the first rail station to be completed in London, in 1841, though it is not the original building. Its destinations include Shoeburyness, defined in the deeper meaning of Liff as “The vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else’s bottom.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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