Len McCluskey's comments about using the Olympics as a focal point for anti-cuts protests predictably resulted in condemnation by both Conservatives and Labour this week. It should hardly be necessary to point out that McCluskey's actual comments were perfectly reasonable and probably just a ploy in respect of current negotiations over pay for Unite's bus workers.
The hysterical reaction could be attributed to the way in which everyone seems to take leave of their senses where the Olympics are concerned. It coincided with the latest PR push on the security preparations, with RAF planes scrambling over London to intercept a notional terrorist threat. Apparently, there are surface-to-air missiles somewhere about the place as well, possibly in a lock-up in Catford. There is an element of "fighting the last war" about this, but that is understandable when the purpose is reassurance as much as deterrence.
What is more interesting is the tone of the reaction. Both Milliband and Cameron talked about McCluskey's words as being "unacceptable", which implies they think he has committed a grievous faux pas. Milliband went on to say: "This is a celebration for the whole country and must not be disrupted". Cameron topped that with: "The Olympics are a great opportunity for this country to show everything that is great about the United Kingdom and advertise ourselves to the world".
At this point you begin to sense that the party leaders see the event in essentially PR terms - putting the UK in the shop window. Milliband then took leave of his senses with the following: "We all need to be rallying behind the Olympics – it's going to be an important opportunity for Britain and it's going to affect our jobs, our economic growth in the future and the prosperity of this country". The contribution of the Olympics to future growth will be negligible: most of the economic stimulus has already passed and the legacy is biased towards consumption (e.g. Westfields) rather than production, so don't hold your breath on prosperity.
McCluskey's key point was to contrast the Olympics love-in with the reality of cuts and the slow privatisation of the NHS. He said: "I believe the unions, and the general community, have got every right to be out protesting. If the Olympics provide us with an opportunity, then that's exactly one that we should be looking at". This actually reads as a rather defensive statement, insisting on the right to protest, and perhaps reflects the prevailing assumption that for 3 weeks we'll all forget about the real world.
Perhaps McCluskey's real offence is to have threatened embarrassment in front of our guests. This embarrassment ultimately comes down to revealing the truth about who we are. The recently broadcast documentary series on the anti-apartheid movement, Have You Heard From Johannesburg, made the point that the purpose of protest is often to stimulate a reaction that reveals the truth about a situation. The South African government dismissed the anti-apartheid movement as a tiny number of communists and insisted that the majority of the population were happy with separate development.
The success of the recent campaign against penalising unpaid work experience refuseniks is an echo of this. The government dismissed the campaigners as "Trotskyists" and insisted that employers, the public and the young unemployed themselves all loved the scheme. Protest appears to have brought a different truth to the surface.
What truth do we fear would be revealed if we have a protest at the Olympics?