Monday, March 28, 2011

Turning The Tide? Student Protests in Britain, November 2010

[Note: This article was published in December-January 2010-11 issue of  CRITIQUE, the magazine of NSI-Delhi University Chapter.]

- Dr. Aditya Sarkar

Photo edited by Malay Firoz
In the last decade and a half, the United Kingdom’s higher education system has undergone a rapid transition: from universally free tuition to – as it now appears – universalized student debt. The latest round of reform has sought to increase fees threefold, cutting public funding enormously, and transforming universities into purveyors of ‘services’ to be consumed and paid for by customers, rather than a public good to be received by citizens. Many aspiring university students will never see the inside of a college classroom, and many more will have to precariously balance their education against heavy loans, thereby inevitably selecting courses generating immediate employment prospects and financial stability. Large numbers of ‘non-profitable’ university departments, therefore, are facing the axe, which affects teachers as well as students. In one sense, this continues – and radicalizes – a practice begun in the Thatcher years, as public funding was progressively reduced and supplemented by private investment, and extended in the Blair era, when student fees were introduced for the first time. The present proposals of the Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition government are, in one sense, the logical culmination of this tradition, marked, as Stefan Collini has pointed out, by the simultaneous escalation of student intake and the whittling down of funding available, all at a high cost to the quality of the education received.[1]
The present reforms, however, are anchored in a more immediate policy choice – the government in power proposes to cut its way out of the most serious economic depression since the 1930s. And these cuts are not going to take the form of taxes and penalties imposed upon the plutocratic banking and financial elites whose investments triggered the crisis in the first place, but instead are a protracted assault upon public services: housing, social security, health, and education. In line with the pervasive neoliberal dogma that all that matters is balancing the budget and cutting the deficit (while continuing to fund foreign wars and nuclear missiles, and of course bailing out bankers), the British government is axing hundreds of thousands of jobs, whittling down social security benefits to a minimum, shifting the burden of the depression upon those who are the most vulnerable to it, and generally parsing out what remains of the welfare state. So widespread is this dogma that the obvious, perfectly orthodox, Keynesian counsel – to spend rather than cut, to generate growth rather than contribute further to the shrinking of the economy – is laughed out of court. 

For a long time, while these reforms were being worked out, it seemed like there was nothing much happening by way of protest and refusal, even as strikes and occupations raged and escalated in other European countries over similar cuts and economic adjustments, most notably Greece and most recently France. The Trades Union Congress declared a national day of action – for March 2011, by which time the bulk of the cuts will already have taken place, and the bulk of the jobs will have been lost. The education reforms, however, have triggered, through the course of November, a student movement without parallel in living memory, successive waves of agitations reaching their zenith in country-wide days of action on the 10th, 24th, and 30th of the month, and haunting the U.K’s corridors of power and overwhelmingly right-wing media with the threat of generalized insurrection. 

In the second round of student protests in London, on 24 November, a group of demonstrators found themselves locked within a police cordon – ‘kettled’, as the charming term for the practice goes – with a police van, suspiciously unmanned and unguarded, lying cheek by jowl with them. Angered at being locked in, as well as at being sold down the river by a callous neoliberal state, they began to attack the van, smashing the windows, writing on it, dancing on it. Predictably, this event received disproportionate coverage in the BBC and other mainstream media. What such reports equally predictably left out was the intense debate that was thankfully recorded by a sympathetic digital camera, between the angry protestors who attacked the van and another group of students who tried to prevent them. Not a debate carried out in the euphemistic language of ‘respecting public property’, but a debate about the tactical value of such an action. Some pointed out, with reason, that it played right into the hands of an overwhelmingly right-wing British media slavering at the jaw for such juicy morsels of student ‘violence’, and that it wasn’t ‘very clever’ to vent one’s anger on a mute object. Others argued, with equal reason, that a statement needed to be made, that without this ‘excess’ their voices wouldn’t be heard at all, and that this ‘violence’ hurt no person. As might have been expected, the BBC picked up on this incident, strategically inflating its place within the protest at large, but blanked out the abundantly available audiovisual evidence of policemen beating unarmed protestors up with truncheons, and, kitted out in riot gear, charging them on horseback.[2]

In a microcosm, this incident sums up the issues at stake in the current confrontation. When spun out of shape by political pundits and the newsmongers of the Daily Mail, incidents like these are falsely represented as a clash between a ‘responsible’ (because peaceful and un-threatening) protesting majority, and a disruptive minority of loony-left hooligans. The real debates over actions like the attack on the van – or, for that matter, the electrifying occupation of the Conservative headquarters at Millbank on 10 November – are, however, those that take place within the ranks of the protestors, at this difficult crossroads when the momentum on the streets is clearly theirs, but the road ahead is unclear. What forms of direct action are appropriate to a moment like this? As the mass demonstrations against the war in 2003 showed with bitter clarity, simply marching out by the million and saying ‘we are here’ is not enough. Forms of action are needed that press down upon the apparatus of the state and the everyday life it oversees: buildings of strategic value, roads on which commuters pass, schools and colleges that were once designed for education rather than service provision and consumer satisfaction. But where is the line to be drawn, if the students are to carry public opinion with them, as they seem to have done so far? Are their aims to be achieved by stepping up or by eschewing the spectacular militancy of attacks upon the symbols of privilege and power? Only time – the future course of protests – can tell which tactic, or rather which admixture of the two, is of more value. 

For the students and their swelling numbers of supporters and sympathizers, the real question is how to organize the wonderful spirit released this November into something more tangible and durable. The government is shaken by these incidents – the national days of action; university occupations across the country (even in the unlikeliest of places: the stately Radcliffe Camera building in Oxford, and the serene, conservative colleges of Cambridge); a ceaseless traffic across the various social media which have been the principal channel of organization thus far. However, make no mistake: this government, despite the occasional flutters of worry within Clegg’s party, has both the wherewithal and the will not to blink, to wait out this upsurge until the fires die down, as eventually they must. This is the point at which it will be necessary to organize the many small and large insurrections into firmer structures, to build networks and coalitions that can last till the next round of savage cuts, which this time will hit the public sector, very hard, to the tune of half a million jobs. This, as the students’ uprisings have acknowledged, raises the critical question of the moment – what kinds of links can be forged between their protests and the U.K.’s unions, to produce an alliance that may genuinely rock David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s boat? The unions have been quiet, mostly, during the student protests. If the students, in their turn, are quiet when the unions are hit, then the battle may well be lost. But if the momentum can be sustained – and there’s no value to prescribing the form of such organization from afar, the activists on the ground will make their own choices – and if the ‘student-worker alliance’ that many of the placards and banners in November’s demonstrations promised crystallizes, then this really is a battle that might be won. This is why the attempts consistently made in the student protests to reach out to other sections of society vulnerable to the cuts – school pupils whose future has suddenly darkened, university teachers who face the same consequences from these measures as do the protesting students, public sector workers who will be worse hit than anyone else come the New Year – are crucial. 

In any case, Britain’s students are to be saluted for picking up the gauntlet, at a time when the unions – excepting the more militant ones, active among the tube workers, the firefighters, and a handful of others – have been quiescent, and the Trades Union Congress, typically, has all but washed its hands of any responsibility. This had bred a despairing cynicism among many observers (the author of this piece is not exempt from this accusation) that in the U.K., the major struggles have already been fought and lost, by better men and women. Where are the protests, we moaned, when France is paralyzed by strikes, when Greece has been on the boil continuously for two years? Where are those who will actually confront the attempt by this vicious ConDem [3] administration to cut its way out of a recession, to use worldwide economic crisis as an opportunity to resolve the class struggles in Britain for once and for all? Thankfully, those of us who bemoaned the passivity superficially visible in the U.K. were proved resoundingly wrong. Grim as the situation is, there is real reason to hope that the rolling wave of strikes, demonstrations and occupations in city after city in Europe – London replacing Paris as the epicentre over the last month – are signals of a real movement, which may not be limited within state frontiers. Every population will have its own tipping-point, generated by balances of power that have historically been differently constituted: the workers and students in France were fighting to protect rights that the British had long been forced to give up, and in Spain they deployed a political technique – the general strike – which has long been formally declared illegal in the U.K. But these different histories of organization and disorganization, these different levels of morale and demoralization, are rapidly beginning to coalesce. As the gap between governments of the centre-left (Greece, Spain, Portugal) and the right (Britain, France) closes on all essential matters, and as the co-dependency of states and financial elites becomes ever more evident, more and more are taking to the streets, debating strategy and tactics, and, even as these words are written, formulating new plans – the occupation of this university, the storming of that police cordon, the mass demonstration, there, next week. New solidarities will be – will have to be – forged. In the footage available on the Internet, we hear a student demonstrator remark, joyfully, ‘This is what democracy looks like’. 

Most of all, the arguments of the establishment appear more and more strained. The contrast between the footage available of the storming of the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank in central London on 10 November – the spark that set this all off in the U.K. – and its depiction by a horrified right-wing media as a terrorist act committed by vandals, is a striking demonstration of this. The footage shows students flowing into a mostly unguarded building, pushing joyfully through the few police guarding it, shouting slogans, waving banners from the roof, singing songs, dancing, kissing, and generally turning the barracks of Britain’s ugliest political space into, for a few hours, a thing of beauty.[4] The spin-doctoring amply visible in the country’s mainstream media presented it as an act of vandalism, but the scale and militancy of subsequent protests will have, to many onlookers, have exposed such representation for the shabby cover-up it is. Especially since the genuine violence faced by protestors, in the form of truncheon-happy cops, and of attacks by charging lines of mounted police, have been increasingly difficult to disguise or wish away, and, unlike a few smashed windows, embody attacks upon people and not upon property – the very reverse of whatever little ‘violence’ the demonstrators have partaken of. 

For Britain’s ‘official’ opposition, the Labour Party that set many of these neoliberal processes in motion in the first place, and the union leaderships that back it, the unraveling of the ConDem con-trick presents a rocky terrain, which they are currently navigating with impressive clumsiness. Aaron Porter, the elected but thoroughly unrepresentative leader of the National Union of Students, started off by unequivocally condemning the ‘violence’ at Millbank. However, confronted with the escalation of student anger over the month, he recently was forced to set his compass due left, reluctantly endorse occupations – the tactic that is the backbone of the current protests – as a legitimate form of action, and even apologize for the ‘spinelessness’ he had exhibited. The NUS, which had issued the initial call for a demonstration on 10 November, rapidly found itself outflanked, as the movement snowballed out of its control and it was forced to shift leftwards to catch up with the subsequent days of action, which were called independently. Even Ed Miliband, leader of the Opposition and a New Labourite to-the-manner-born, was occasionally heard mumbling words of qualified support. These are, of course, opportunist and unprincipled men, who will shift to the right again when the storm quietens: what is important, however, is that they feel the need to voice such sentiments now. For the first time in many years, the official leadership of the labour movement in Britain has to respond to pressures from its left. If the students and what remains of the organized working class can unite over the issue of cuts, these pressures will, at the very least, grow. 

The Conservative Party headquarters at Aberdeen. The County Hall at Oxford. The offices of Lloyds TSB and Vodafone in Cardiff. The Birmingham council chamber. Universities at Leeds, Cambridge, Oxford, Sussex, and Belfast. The main bridge at York. All these are habitually secure, settled spaces of order and power and ‘normality’ that have been occupied by angered demonstrators, students at their forefront. University lecturers, in solidarity with their students, have organized sit-ins and teach-ins at their occupied workplaces. School students, some as young as thirteen, have walked out of their classes to stand up for their rapidly vanishing futures.[5] Very young working-class people, with no tradition of political organization behind them, have joined them. Potentially, then, Clegg and Cameron are the great revolutionaries of their age – their policies may just have radicalized a new generation of future activists. And besides this, of course, is the continuous, fever-pitch mass action in London, demonstration rolling into demonstration, occupation triggering occupation.[6] Beyond this lie the other European staging-posts of confrontation: Dublin and Lisbon first of all, perhaps, given the sequence of cuts, bail-outs and ‘adjustments’ across Europe, but also Paris, Athens, Rome, and Madrid. Not since 1968 has Europe seen such anti-capitalist ferment. And there’s the warning: things are even darker now, and much more than millions of jobs and futures will be lost if this movement, still in its nascent stages, is allowed to whimper to a close like its predecessor. 
[1] Stefan Collini, ‘Browne’s Gamble’, London Review of Books, vol.32, no.21, 4 November 2010. Available at: 

[2] Click here for a superb and revealing footage of the attack on the police van, and other incidents. 

[3] ‘ConDem’ – a useful abbreviation for the Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition, deployed to good effect by the banners and slogans of demonstrators over the last month. 

[4] Yes, a few windows were smashed – what of it? Yes, a fire extinguisher was thrown from the roof by a protestor – an unnecessary and dangerous move that the protestors all round (their voices blanked out by mainstream coverage) universally greeted with horrified cries of ‘don’t throw shit, don’t throw shit’. Needless to say, this one event became, for much of the British media, the summation, in toto, of the protests. 

[5] See the website Lenin’s Tomb for coverage and analysis of some of these events. 

[6] The events mentioned in this article are merely the tip of the iceberg: for confirmation of this, follow the online blog run by the – very mainstream left-liberal – newspaper The Guardian, which covers, in detail, the sequence of events on 30 November, the most recent day of protests. 
Dr. Aditya Sarkar is a historian and a Post-Doctoral scholar and lecturer of Modern Indian History, Center of Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS) in the Goettingen University, Germany.


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