It’s not about fees, it’s about democracy

Now that things are settling down after this week’s massive student demonstration in London – and the events at the Conservative HQ building that followed it, it’s worth reflecting a little on what was really happened, and what it tells us about the temper of Con Dem Britain.

The media reactions have been predictable. It’s either a case of privileged youth after a free ride, or a riot by the usual suspects who disgraced the 50,000 students who had marched earlier. Of course, it’s neither – one of the most interesting things about what happened on 10 November is the complete inability of most of the mainstream media to “get” it, to ask whether there might be something going on here that’s a bit more profound or interesting.

Small riot, not many hurt

The riot angle is of course what the tabloids led on. Actually, stand back from it, and it’s not much – a few minor injuries (more to protesters than to police), a few arrests, a bit of criminal damage. Always excepting the moron who threw the fire extinguisher, not much more than a Bullingdon Club night out, really. Nothing quite gets a lazy journalist going more than a picture of a youth putting an object through a plate glass window. And it allows them to retreat behind all the usual tropes about political motivation, hard-core anarchists, Class War and all the rest of it.

A much more interesting account of the events at Millbank – from an eye-witness – is here. It makes a convincing case that what we saw here was not the “usual suspects” at all, but a group of angry people in a confused and confusing situation:

The majority were just plain old students, but angry. The kind of students who go to their lectures, go to parties, play sport at the weekends and sometimes get a bit drunk and lairy. And there were a lot of very young students there. Maybe they were first years, but many of them looked like school students. They weren’t all middle class, they weren’t all white, they hadn’t all come in on the student union buses. They were never looking at the Russell group education that private and grammar school educated kids could, until now, take for granted. These are the people who made up the majority of the people at Millbank – ordinary young people, working class and middle class, from school age up to university age, who hadn’t been on many demos before, whose only encounter with the police, or with agitated crowds, had been Saturday night lairiness or sports matches.

And that set the mood. It felt like a rowdy night in a busy town. People were angry and frustrated, and they hadn’t had the training or the experience to deal with the situation. If it was true that a militant anarchist faction had led the violence at Millbank then here’s what it would have looked like:

Everybody facing the police line would have had a mask on. Nobody wouldplan to feature prominently in national newspapers with their face clearly exposed, throwing a stick at a police officer or smashing a window. But what did we actually see? A few make-shift bandannas slipping down people’s faces and a huge number of students who hadn’t even tried to hide their identity.

The police line would have been stormed. There was a large plate glass window missing, right in front of the crowd. There were hundreds of protestors, there were a laughably small number of police. Very little organisation would have been required for everybody to link up and just walk through the police line, with little damage done to either side. Instead there a mass of people hanging back, and a handful of angry people launching themselves one by one at the police with fists or sticks to be beaten back with batons.

When the snatch squad was sent in their targets would have been surrounded and protected by fellow protestors. Instead the crowd allowed the police to get to their targets and then to carry them back out, right through the bulk of the protestors. The reaction was angry, and violent, but completely ineffective. It was clear that people didn’t understand what was happening until it was over.

There would have been a sense of purpose. I did quite a bit of chatting and eavesdropping. People didn’t know what was going on. Not just the people milling around near the back. Students in university hoodies who were right up near the front, the ones who were launching sticks as if they were javelins, were confused. They asked each other if anyone was in charge, they wondered if they were going to miss their bus back, they talked about ‘kettling’ as something that they’d heard of but never experienced. They had a slightly dazed look, part exhilaration, part anger, but partly just the look of someone trying to cope with a situation that they’ve never been in before. There was no one in charge, so they made it up. And a number of them got it wrong.

Degree to go with fries, please

The other misunderstanding is that this protest was about privileged kids looking after number one. But this was actually about far more than that. It was about tuition fees, yes, but also about massive cuts in funding especially to arts courses, with the increase in fees being part of a strategy that looks horribly like the privatisation of higher education.

Behind that assumption is an insidious and dangerous interpretation of what higher education is about. The mainstream trope runs, you get a degree, you earn more, you pay. Education is a commodity like a Big Mac or an iPhone, something that students consume.

But it isn’t, and as soon as the Left falls into that trap it’s lost the argument. The pioneers of education in Britain, who were largely on the left, didn’t do it so that their kids could get a well-paid job in a multi-national. They did it because education is at the root of what a decent society should be, and because of a belief that it should be freely available to all who wanted it. It wasn’t a commodity, it was the mark of a decent society. It was a collective good, something we all benefitted from, not a badge to be bought by the affluent, to, as Ivan Illich caustically put it, to rationalise the head start as achievement.

So when did we vote for this?

I think to understand the anger, we have to think about democracy. Anybody who was there at the march would have been in no doubt that the most virulent anger was reserved for Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. Tories are Tories; people expect nothing better of Cameron and Osborne.

But these were people to whom Clegg made a pledge that he would fight against tuition fees. Many of those students would have voted Liberal Democrat in May on that basis – voting, of course, for the first time. Some of them would have worked for Lib Dem candidates. And they’ve been shafted.

It is difficult to think of more pathetic examples of dishonesty turned to excuse-making than some of the attempts by Liberal Democrats to rationalise their sell-out. This extraordinary piece by John Hemming MP is fairly typical, its desperation of tone more illuminating than any of its content. (I should mention as an aside that I first met Hemming thirty years ago when he and I were at Oxford, and he was organising a rent strike at Magdalen College – something that makes me wonder just what sort of self-loathing and moral delinquency it takes for people who once believed in something to sit in Parliament meekly cheering as Osborne and Duncan Smith go to work on the most vulnerable in society).

I think this betrayal is part of a wider crisis in democracy. We now have three parties wedded to neo-liberal economics, whos political aim is not to serve the electorate but to get their aims past them. I think the electorate is beginning to wake up to it. The use of deficit scaremongering to override democratic accountability seems to me to be at the heart of the Con Dem agenda, and people realise this and are getting angrier. The spectacle of a handful of the extremely wealthy telling the rest of society to make sacrifices for the common good, while their chums in the banks continue to get their bonuses, is wearing thin. Is it any surprise that people are getting impatient with Westminster?

And in any case, given everything that’s happened, the broken pledges, the privatisation that the electorate never had their say on – given all that, who the hell are Clegg – not to mention people like Cameron and the ludicrous Boris Johnson, who as members of the Bulllingdon Club took a rather less rigid view of criminal damage in their student days – to lecture the students at Millbank about democracy? Who are they to tell students that they should channel their anger in establishment-approved ways?

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