Student protest: we have failedTweet
Joined: Jan 2012Occupation: Studying History at University of YorkJack's Full Profile
“You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
For those of us who came of political age in the summer of 2010, during the excitement of the first televised (and Tweeted) party leaders’ debates in British electoral history, there was one defining political event of that year. It was not the election. As students we will remember above all else the scenes of November 10th 2010. Surpassing the election and its mildly interesting moments of eccentricity, the protests of November 2010 made every student a political celebrity. At least, from the foothills of educational politics and many miles from London, it seemed that way. For the first time since CND, Free Mandela and all those Billy Bragg-soundtracked crusades of the 1980s, students were on the front page. Having read some nostalgic, slightly rose-tinted memoirs about student activism of previous decades, I found my own generation suddenly thrown into a fresh wave of conflict with the establishment. Whatever your sympathies and opinions concerning the fee changes, the coalition government or the handling of the protests, I would contend that you did not easily overlook the presence of 50,000 students marching in our capital city. I saw it all the way from the North, through the amplifying lens of the television sets which bleated so condescendingly about the “tough choices” that oh so “had to be made.”
Consider for a moment just what an achievement such organization of mass opposition was; one of the largest marches in the capital since the run-up to the Iraq War, done with a volunteer army of infamously “lazy”, “feckless”, “scrounging” and “layabout” students – how long we have heard those epithets levied against people whose crime against society and the State is to seek an education. Society’s harmless teasing of the campus bar-hibernating, Countdown-recording, essay-dodging paupers has gone on for decades, but recently it has become more vicious. The public attitude towards universities has been re-shaped by the introduction of tuition fees in 1998 and the subsequent reordering of academia into an assembly-line efficient, productivity target-meeting “sausage factory”. As far back as 2006 severe warnings were being given by the Association of University Teachers about the horrific damage that commercial managerial practices, performance targets and a commodification of academia was doing to higher education.
Resistance was inevitable, but the predictable demos by the Socialist Workers’ Party et al, amounted to little more than humorous sidelines in the back pages of university town newspapers. The insultingly named “top-up fees” (education becomes an O2 Pay and Go phone) were hiked in 2004; no protest of note took place. Those taking action were ignored; those doing nothing revealed their heads-down complacency. What happened in 2010 was perhaps a result of the sheer, vulgar audacity of the planned changes. A gradual increase, from £3,500 to £5,000, for example, would undoubtedly have sparked grumbling and angry comments – but perhaps no protests. Certainly not the mobilization of the equivalent of two standard army infantry divisions, which is what the demonstration on November 10th 2010 accomplished. That number recurs again and again when I think back to that day – fifty thousand marchers. All volunteers and no conscripts or mercenaries. They marched not to fight an unjust war, to subjugate a populace or profit from any success; on the contrary, they marched to defend the existing, pitiful student finance system. The hypocritical fees introduced by Labour (or the party that dares usurp its name), along with the measly living cost loans were abhorrent, but just about tolerable. The worst result would be a debt of around £18,000, tuition and living costs included. Now that debt has more than doubled. For those of us lucky to be born in 1993 or afterwards, we will routinely face debts of £50,000. A pound to pay for every protestor who turned out and fought.
I abhor number mysticism, but it intrigued me how the fee figures resembled the nonsense numbers that Winston Smith is forced to chase around his desk at the Ministry of Plenty. Whether the original projected production figure of sixty-five million boots must be revised to fifty-eight million, it really matters little. The nonsensical numbers seemed to be drawn arbitrarily, much like the US Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in 2008; a bailout of $700 billion that was “not based on any particular data point” according to a figure in the US Treasury.
The articles from that unforgettable month are still there – lying in state in the mausoleum of cyberspace. I am encumbered with a strange combination of nostalgia and despair when I read the unfulfilled warnings and empty promises. In retrospect we can see how hollow the admonitions that “this is only the beginning” and “a year of resistance” ring in the light of history. In truth, the protests reached a zenith in December 2010 and have since failed to meet even half the impact made by the first demonstration. We cannot afford the injuries of ignorance and self-denial on this matter. Assuring ourselves that the tuition fees will sort themselves out, and the decline of political protest since last year will somehow work out fine, is the failure to recognize the most basic, elementary truth. We have failed. We have failed. In that bitter admission, I see no reason why 2012 must bring yet more failure. Great campaigns have suffered setbacks and have been brought close to the edge of defeat before. I urge that 2011 be remembered as our near-breaking-point, and not a definitive one.
As to the violence at the demonstrations which attracted so much attention, I will just remind you of one fact: David Cameron pledged his moral support for the protestors involved in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. During the protests, the headquarters of Mubarak’s party were set on fire and razed to the ground; allowed to burn by the million-strong force of protesters converging on Tahir Square. Whatever the morality of destroying the regime’s official home, we should ask one question of David Cameron and all those who claim to support the struggle of the Egyptian protestors, but not the struggle against debt bondage. If the protestors who occupied 30 Millbank on November 10th had set the building ablaze, would David Cameron have supported them?
That may be a foolish, self-fulfilling query to conclude upon. But it bears some thought. Regardless of your views on the validity of occupations and direct action as a means of protest, you must admit one further truth. The hypocrisy of the authorities concerning the use of violence demonstrates why, in future, we must carefully choose our words before boasting of the full legality, orderliness and timidity of our protests. What respect can be afforded to the law, and those who make it, when it is applied so arbitrarily and with all the moral vigor of Tiberius Caesar?
Our inaction since 2010 may come down to a simple matter of fear. None of us want to become Charlie Gilmour. The propensity of certain police forces to detain the violent and non-violent in singular fell swoops has undoubtedly scared many of us away. Fears for the future of our own individual educations and careers have also played a significant part; the desire for self-preservation is a principle agent in the desire not to cause trouble for the authorities. The wave may not have broken naturally. It has been dispersed by the terror of what may happen when it hits the shore.
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