U.S. and World Politics

Britain: The Student Revolt

By Alan Woods

Around noon December 9 students gathered in various parts of London to march towards the center of the city. All over London the students had made a conscious effort to bring out school students in the morning and the days before with leaflets. At least half of the protesters were school students, probably more. Many were working class kids from poor areas. Even The Financial Times admitted that some 20-30,000 students participated.

Coming from many different points the protests converged at Trafalgar Square where they found a police line blocking their entry into Whitehall. Still the students came on, carried along by the momentum, shouting slogans and marching at great speed. The first arrivals waited at Trafalgar Square for others to arrive. Then the students quickly proceeded into St. James’ Park, rather than the Embankment, where the official end was supposed to take place. Despite their numbers the police found themselves outwitted and out-maneuvered by the students who appeared in many different streets and side streets.

It is abundantly clear that the students did not respect the authority of the bureaucracy of the NUS or the UCU, who attempted to get them to go down to Embankment in a respectable and “peaceful” protest. But the image presented in the media of an anarchic and chaotic mob is incorrect. In fact, the protesters were well organized, attempting to constantly keep the crowd moving and attack the weak points of the police lines.

They finally broke through the line at Parliament Square and then organized to fill out the square before the police could re-establish control. Regardless of the police lines, the students were determined to get into Parliament Square in order to get closer to where the vote was going to take place so that the protest would be heard inside parliament. They were successful in this.

Political repercussions

While the mass movement seethed outside, another drama was being played out inside the “Mother of Parliaments.” The faces on the government front benches reflected their extreme discomfort. The extent of the protest took them by surprise, as did the general mood of sympathy among the public.

The most serious effects were felt by the LibDems (Liberal Democrats), who are now in a deep crisis. The hatred of the protestors was directed more against them than the Tories. During the election they had promised to abolish university fees. Now they were increasing them. This has caused a wave of rage and indignation among many young people who voted for the LibDems in the general election.

Before the TV cameras a student leader called out: “hands up all who voted LibDem!” A few hands were raised timidly, as if those concerned had been asked to confess a sexually transmitted disease. “Hands up those who will vote LibDem next time!” Not a single hand was raised, amidst shouts of “Never!” and “Never again!”

This has had a profound effect on the LibDem Party at the grass roots level and also in parliament. A large number of their MPs, under pressure, decided to vote against. The prospect of losing one’s seat, like a good hanging, concentrates the mind wonderfully. But the top leadership remains firm—firm, that is, in its abandonment of all pretence at principle.

In his novel David Copperfield, Charles Dickens conjured up the character known as Uriah Heep, a snivelling, two-faced clerk that has become a byword for cloying obsequiousness and insincerity. Yesterday Vince Cable, the Uriah Heep of the LibDem leadership, gave a performance that was unique even in the voluminous annals of British parliamentary hypocrisy.

With the kind of self-assured cynicism that comes from years of experience in the company boardroom, the Business Secretary announced to an incredulous House that his plan to treble university fees and effectively slam the doors of higher education to the children of the working class was “just,” “fair” and “progressive,” and that the poor people would benefit from it.

Listening to this object lesson in barefaced mendacity, even the most hardened Tory right-winger must have stifled a gasp of disbelief. Accustomed as they are in this hallowed chamber to hearing black described as white, this virtuoso performance took their breath away. The display of grateful solidarity from Tory leader David Cameron when his LibDem colleague finally sat down was completely unfeigned and sincere.

It is no accident that Cameron graciously handed the task of defending his policy to the LibDems. He has spent a lot of time perfecting his public image as “Mr. Nice Tory” and has no wish to spoil it. Moreover, the protests have even succeeded in having an effect inside the ranks of the Tory party, forcing the Tory Whips to use heavy-handed tactics in attempting to compel the Tory MPs to vote with the government. Despite this, 6 Tories rebelled and two abstained.

As a result of the seething discontent in the Liberal Democratic Party, 21 out of 57 of their MPs voted against the government, with a further six abstentions—a total of 27 who refused to vote for the coalition. The abstainers included Simon Hughes, the leader of the LibDem parliamentary group. Here we have the outline of a future split in the party, which would mean a premature end for the coalition.

The coalition, then, is in difficulties. But what can one say about the leaders of Her Majesty’s Opposition? If ever there was a moment when the people were crying out for a clear leadership and an aggressive opposition that moment is now. So what has the present Labor leadership done?

Since he was elected to the post of Party Leader, Ed Miliband first did a tolerable imitation of the Invisible Man. Many Party members wondered when he would break his silence. Now he has finally done so, they will wish he had not. What is the Labor Party Leader’s response to the Tory-LibDem plan to destroy higher education?

Answering an interviewer on television who asked if he was going to reverse the measure, Miliband said:

“I think it is a bad decision but I am not going to fall into the trap that the Liberal Democrats fell into of making a promise that I am not sure I can keep. I think the lesson for politicians is that you should under-promise and over-deliver rather than over promising and then breaking your promises.”

Translated into plain English this means: “When I am in opposition, I must promise nothing. Then, when I am in power, I will do exactly what I have promised.” This is hardly a program for enthusing the youth—or anybody else.

The question of violence

The media campaign of vilification of the students has plumbed new depths of hypocrisy and mendacity. Every night on the screens of the television the public is regaled with scenes of violence and mayhem, which are routinely blamed on the students. Television journalists are hastily dispatched to every scene of disorder, where they obediently show pictures of masked youths smashing windows, daubing paint on ancient buildings and clashing with poor defenseless riot police.

The press and television coverage has attempted to demonize the students, attributing all the violence to “small groups of troublemakers.” At one point the students tried to break through the police lines towards Victoria. It was at that point that things turned ugly. The sequence of events is not entirely clear but two important things happened: The police charged with horses at full speed into the crowds and a policeman fell off his horse and got trampled by it.

The television immediately claimed that the officer concerned was pulled off his horse by protesters, but from the footage it is clear that no protester was involved. He simply lost his mount in the general commotion. Eyewitnesses report that the crowd was genuinely shocked when that happened. However, this incident agitated the police as the officer apparently was quite seriously injured. This provided the excuse they were looking for. Protesters were knocked unconscious and many suffered wounds to the head. The police were lashing out randomly without any consideration for the lives or safety of their victims.

The Financial Times this morning reported that 43 protesters were hospitalized, but this is based on police figures and is likely to be an underestimate. On the other hand, six police officers were put in hospital, with another six injured. 34 protesters were arrested. According to the Met, of these, 12 people were arrested for “violent disorder,” 2 for arson, 4 for assault on police, 3 for criminal damage, 1 for drunk and disorderly, and 4 for “burglary.”

These accusations are part of the same well-orchestrated campaign to smear the students and present them as criminals. The real criminals, however, are the government and the forces of state repression. The violence with which the police have struck out at the unprotected heads of demonstrators definitely put people’s lives in danger. According to eyewitnesses, ambulance staff and police were arguing over the question of care, as police wanted to have their own medics take care of the injured rather than the ambulance staff.

A young 20-year-old student, Alfie Meadows, was hit on the head by a police truncheon, causing bleeding on the brain. Rushed to hospital in a state of near-coma, his life was saved only by an emergency operation. It recalled the murder of Blair Peach who was hit on the head by the police and killed during a demonstration against an election meeting held by the National Front in 1979.

The media presents a distorted picture that describes victims as aggressors and aggressors as victims. The police, we are told, are compelled to “defend themselves” by breaking heads and holding perfectly innocent people for hours in freezing weather, without food, water or toilet facilities. This refined form of torture has been baptized with the innocent-sounding name “kettling.” It is a practice that is clearly illegal even under current law, being the equivalent of false imprisonment.

Is it any wonder that young people who have been subjected to such brutal treatment by our “forces of Order” are seething with anger? Is it any wonder that they are seized by a burning desire to lash out at authority? And anyway, what are a few broken windows compared to broken futures for generations of our youth? What are a few isolated acts of “vandalism” against public buildings compared to the systematic vandalism being perpetrated by the occupants of these same buildings against our entire education system?

Hue and cry over Charles and Camilla

Today the newspapers are dominated by one small incident. On Thursday evening Prince Charles and Camilla were headed for a pleasant evening’s entertainment at the London Palladium when their Rolls Royce car was surrounded with students who expressed their devotion to the royal family by shouting “Off with their heads!”

Charles and Camilla were not harmed, though they were shaken. However, the aforementioned Rolls Royce came off rather worse, with a smashed window and a new coat of white paint. A photo showing the open-mouthed reactions of the couple as they sat inside their car was on the front pages of every paper in London this morning.

How the two Royal Family members could have been chauffeured into the middle of a protest demonstration is a mystery, and does not say a lot for the efficiency of Security arrangements at the Palace. But the incident is naturally being used to divert attention away from the real issues.

Political leaders are falling over each other in their haste to denounce this dastardly offense against our Royal Family. The same politicians who constantly harp on about people “scrounging off social security” rush to defend these royal parasites who every year take millions of pounds from the British taxpayer in order to maintain their lavish lifestyle at the public expense.

The Establishment, which sees the Monarchy as an important reserve arm of reaction, has carefully nurtured pro-monarchic feelings in the population. Such an attack on members of the royal family is virtually unknown in Britain. One would probably have to go back to the first part of the 19th century to find anything similar.

This is in itself a significant development. It shows a change in the attitude of people towards the Monarchy. These students saw this lavish display of luxury, paid for out of public funds, at the very time when their future livelihood is threatened by vicious cuts in public spending. And they expressed their indignation against a symbol of all that is unjust, inequitable and corrupt in British society.

One might argue about whether such tactics were ill-advised, since they have provided a propaganda gift to the hired media hacks. But the instincts of these young students were a healthy reaction against privilege and parasitism. All our sympathy is with them, and not with the professional hypocrites who are demanding they be punished “with the full force of the law.”

In the mouths of young protestors, “off with their heads” is just an empty phrase, doubtless intended in jest. But when the Prime Minister threatens to bring the full weight of the law on their heads, it is no joke. The Establishment, still smarting from the effects of a demonstration that almost spoiled their plans, is determined to take revenge.

Speaking from Downing Street, Cameron said, “responsibility for smashing property, or violence, lies with the people who perpetrate that violence and I want to see them arrested and punished in the correct way.”

To hear this kind of language from the Leader of the Tory Party is to be expected. But to hear exactly the same thing from the Leader of the Labor Party is another matter altogether.

It is impossible to read without a deep sense of indignation the words of Ed Miliband:

“There is never any excuse for violence or disorder on our streets, nor for vandalizing some of our nation’s most important symbols. The attack on the Prince of Wales’s car, in which he and the Duchess of Cornwall were traveling, is also totally unacceptable. I know that the police will take all steps required to identify those responsible.”

As for the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, instead of worrying about damage to their Rolls Royce, Ed Miliband should be explaining to parliament and the nation that a good way to reduce the public deficit would be to abolish the monarchy and all the other parasitic “symbols” of an oppressive past that every year consumes many millions of pounds that would be more profitably spent on health, housing and education.

An assault on education

Students and academics are aware of the risk of losing the country’s most wonderful and enviable assets. If this Tory-Liberal plan is carried out it will effectively deny access to higher education to children from a working class background, and many kids from middle class families will think twice before going to university. Universities will revert to what they always were in the past: a privileged reserve of the children of the rich.

This is just one example of the way in which the ruling class is hell-bent on putting the clock back. This is not the product of caprice. It is born of an imperative necessity. It is not just that the bourgeoisie cannot afford to concede any new reforms. It cannot tolerate the maintenance of those concessions that were forced from them by the pressure of the working class.

The dilemma can be expressed as follows: the bourgeoisie cannot afford to maintain the present level of living standards, but the working class cannot afford any further attacks on living standards. What is at stake here is the defense of the semi-civilized standards that were conquered inch by inch through struggle. The destruction of these conditions of life would thrust the whole of society back to the wretched state of poverty and ignorance of the past.

Dr. Deborah Bowman, 32, a director of studies in English at Gonville and Caius College, said: “There is a risk of turning a university degree into an object,” she said. “It should be OK to say that we are not just economic entities. Do we want a country in which we are all trying to earn as much as we possibly can—or having rich, fulfilling lives? We are in danger of creating a higher education system in which these are seen as the same thing—and they aren’t.”

The Moneybags of the City of London see no need for culture. They want to open up the universities (and the hospitals, doctors’ surgeries, housing estates, schools and everything else) to the private sector, which will be allowed to cream off the best brains and benefit, free of charge, from research paid for out of the public purse. In the new market oriented universities, there will be no room for independent minds or critical creative thinking. They would be reduced to the milch-cows of private enterprise. Our university system would be sacrificed at the altar of Private Profit.

The Tories and their LibDem friends wish to turn our Universities into market-oriented businesses run by vice-chancellors who behave like the CEOs of big companies. Not for nothing has the job of reviewing higher education been given to the ex-boss of BP. It is a clear case of “creeping corporatism.”

All this would be funded, not by Big Business, but by the students themselves, who would be saddled with intolerable debt for the rest of their lives. By the same twisted logic, the vast debts of the banks have to be paid by the state with money taken from the budgets of the health service, education, housing and social security. The rich must be subsidized by the poor. This is Robin Hood in reverse.

“Life teaches”

Lenin was fond of the Russian proverb, “life teaches.” People learn more in one day of struggle than in twenty years of “normal” existence. A girl student of art history at King’s College, from a “well-off” family and a private school in central London, said: “I’ve learned more in eight days here than I ever learned before.”

Before these events, this student trusted the government and was not involved in political activity of any kind. It was the policy of cuts that convinced her that she should join the Occupation “with a desire to learn,” and found herself in the midst of talks on, Marx, William Morris and Ruskin. “In three days I realized that the government’s policy is clearly ideological, not just economic.”

Many academics have rallied to the side of the students. Many teachers and lecturers are actively supporting the students. Andy Martin, a Cambridge lecturer who participated in the sit-in at his university told The Independent: “My students have had a political awakening. And I’m with them.”

As the occupation at Cambridge University entered its tenth day The Independent reported that there was no “vandalism.” No drunken revels (alcohol and tobacco prohibited). No Molotov cocktails, no barricades. But a lot of deeply passionate and reasoned argument, placards quoting Wittgenstein, and a mood of revolt.

“I have never known such a good-humored and intelligent demonstration,” said one of the Proctors cheerfully yesterday, accompanied by a force of “bulldogs,” the caped and top-hatted university constables. Instead, he was only perturbed that several hundred people had packed into the “Great Room” (as William Morris called it), which is only supposed to hold a maximum of 150.

The blows of police truncheons are rapidly educating the students as to the real nature of the state, which Lenin described as “armed bodies of men in defense of private property.” In answer to the hypocritical chorus of the bourgeoisie and the prostitute media, let us recall that none of the advances of the past was ever conceded by the ruling class. They had to be conquered through hard struggle.

Unjust laws had to be fought on the streets, through strikes and demonstrations, many of which were illegal and brutally repressed by the “forces of Order.” Those who fought for our liberties were subjected to brutal repression: beaten by the police, cut down by the dragoons, deprived of their freedom, transported to a living death in the colonies, tortured, force-fed, whipped and hanged. All this was done in the name of “Law and Order” and defending their so-called civilization against “anarchy.”

Of course, the police are no more homogeneous than any other body in society. Eventually a general revolt in society must affect them also. There are signs that this is already occurring. A student commented to The Guardian: “I was talking to a policeman and he was saying I also support you as I have two kids.” And he was saying to his children “if you want to go to the protest just go straight there. Don’t go to school.”

Despite the one-sided media coverage, the real voice of the people kept breaking in. A teacher shouted over a BBC journalist’s interview with someone else, forcing the journalist to speak to him, saying something like:

“Who are you to talk about violence? The real violence is carried out by those people in there depriving my sons of the right to go to university. I’m a teacher and I know how many kids in my area need the EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) to keep going to school.”

Two female school students from London explained on BBC how they had bailed-out the banks and the rich, but were now attacking the working class. Some boys from poor working class families in East London, said that there is no way they could pay 9,000 to go to university and if they scrapped the EMA what is to keep them from the streets dealing drugs?

The fight goes on!

This marvelous movement gives the lie to those skeptics who argued that the youth of today was apathetic. Where is the apathy now? The youth of today are taking to the streets quite spontaneously, showing great determination, courage and élan. They have not been intimidated by the brutal tactics of the police and the vicious smear campaign of the media. They have been awakened to life and struggle. They feel the strength in numbers. On the streets there is an atmosphere of camaraderie and defiance. That is the spirit that can win!

Thousands of people have attended protests in the past fortnight. The protest movement is spreading like wildfire, affecting new layers of youth, not only in the colleges and universities but also in the schools. Students have staged occupations and demonstrations in many areas demanding rejection of the higher education cuts and rises in fees. Newcastle, York, Sheffield, Leeds, Plymouth, Cambridge and many other places have been affected.

In London the sit-ins at University College London, King’s College, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the London School of Economics are continuing. Solidarity occupations are taking place by architecture students from the Bartlett and students at the Slade School of Fine Art. Billy Bragg and other well-known personalities have given their support to the movement.

The youth have shown that they are ready to fight, but what point of reference do they have? The problem here can be simply stated: it is a problem of leadership. More accurately it is the problem of a total absence of leadership. The youth of Britain have taken to the streets because they feel that they have no voice either in parliament or in the existing political parties, all of which have accepted the need for savage cuts in state expenditure in order to plug the gaping hole in the public finances left by bailing out the banks.

For years we have been accustomed to hear repeated with tedious monotony the complaints of the middle aged former student radicals about the youth of today. They sigh over their lost youth when they still believed in something other than their mortgage and their bank balance.

From the platform at the end of the official demonstration one of the speakers from the trade unions said: “1968 was supposed to be the year of the student revolt. Well, I tell you, you have already built a movement as big as 1968.” This was received with very loud cheers. In point of fact, the present movement is in many ways already on a higher plane than May 1968. A French academic and ex-anarchist said recently: “The students are so much more serious and focused now. They are responding because in this country we lack a counter-power.”

That is just the point. What is needed is precisely a counter-power. That power actually exists, but it is to be found outside the present movement. History shows that the students can play an important role, but it is the role of a sensitive barometer that reflects the tensions and contradictions that are building up in the entrails of society. However, the only force that is capable of transforming society is the organized working class.

Without the permission of the working class, not a light bulb shines, not a wheel turns, and not a telephone rings. If the union leaders behaved with one tenth of the determination of the youth, they would have already called a general strike against the cuts that threaten the whole of the working class.

The student movement presents a stark contrast with the timidity of the trade union leaders, who are allowing the government to trample over their rights, offering only a weak and lukewarm response. The unions must follow the example of the students! The time for empty speeches is over. It is time to mobilize a mass campaign of resistance to drive this reactionary government from power.

The final vote in parliament was 323 in favor and 302 against. This was far closer than expected and was met by gasps of surprise in the chamber. It indicates just how slender the basis of the ruling coalition is. The BBC’s senior political correspondent commented: “The government may have won the vote but outside parliament they have lost the argument and they have lost control of the streets of London.”

The serious representatives of capitalism understand the real situation. The revolt of the students is only the first symptom of a general process of radicalization that will affect the whole of British society. Left Labor MP John McDonnell’s comments summed up the situation: “Don’t ever forget this day. It is the day education became no longer a right but a commodity to be bought and sold. The fight against cuts in education and tuition fees doesn’t end here. This is just the beginning.”

In Defense of Marxism, December 10, 2010