Sometime in 1998 a number of signs went up around the campus of my university. The signs called for action, or inaction to be more precise. A student sit in protest was being organised to make clear the population’s disgust at the Labour government’s plan to abolish student grants. The problem was that most students didn’t feel that much disgust and what disgust they did feel was masked by the fact that we had our grants already and no-one was planning to take them away from us. The real victims were the future generations of students who were either too busy studying for their A Levels or too young and uninterested to know what was going on. A few days after the posters went up and were duly ignored an addition was made; “£1 a pint from 2pm to 4pm”. We were now interested.
In my teens I was an idealist, I wanted to go to Uni, grow my hair long and fight “the man”. I had visions of mass movements, student sit ins and hippy girls with free love on their minds. By the time I got to King Alfred’s College, Winchester I still had the visions of hippy girls with free love on their minds whilst the other thoughts had drifted back into a section of my mind labelled “Can’t be arsed.” It wasn’t that I’d stopped caring about the world, more that the world seemed to be getting on ok. In September 1997 the UK was suffering from mixed emotions. The excitement of New Labour had yet to fade and the mass hysteria over the death of Princess Diana was only just beginning. I was neither much of a Labour supporter nor caught up in the death of Diana, and nor were most of my peers. We were doing what any sensible adolescent does when there is no visible threat to their way of life, we were getting drunk. So when the grant issue came around our revolutionary zeal had been drowned by a mix of snakebite and black and hippy girls with free love on their minds.
Skip forward to 2010 and the Conservative government are back in, student funding is back on the agenda and the city of London is alight with protest. In 1998 grants went and in 2006 tuition fees were introduced in without too much of a protest. In contrast this year’s announcement of a planned rise in tuition fees from a cap of £3000 a year to a cap of £9000 a year has caused a shit storm that is unlikely to calm quickly. Why is the situation so different to that in 1998 and 2006?
As implied above I’m more of a mental protester, I like the romance of it all but rarely find the energy or enthusiasm to divert from my daily activities to take part. Only once have I felt so strongly about a situation to muster the energy and will to do so. On 15th February 2003 I hoped on a bus outside the Bell Inn on Walcot St. Bath and travelled to the capital for the largest anti war march the city had seen. I picked it carefully, I have grown cynical of direct action and of most mass movements over the years and didn’t want to align myself with a cause just because I was angry, I wanted to really know why I was there. My feelings were that two fold; the reasons for war we, the public, had been given were lies or distortions of the truth and therefore the government had no right to order our troops into battle and the long held belief that we were the good guys and the good guys never fired first. I felt we only had one opportunity; I was not prepared to protest once the invasion got under way as I believed a half finished war leaves greater dangers in the world than a one that, whilst unjustified, reaches a definite conclusion. In the end we seem to have been left with something in the middle.
The day was an experience I’ll never forget, not least because being amongst that many people is overwhelming in itself but also because it gave me an insight into the workings of mass demonstrations. Amongst the anti-war banners there were also related and not so related banners being handed out to anyone who would take them. The Free Palestine movement, the Socialist workers party, various anarchist movements and even a couple of anti-capitalists were all there handing out banners to people who looked too keen to look like they cared about something to bother reading them first. One of the most blatantly opportunistic banner pushers of the day was The Mirror who had printed thousands reading simply “Stop the War” with their logo emblazed above. These were being handed out all over the place and were the most easily recognised banners in the crowd, not least due to their numbers and conformity but also due to bright red background their logo is printed on.
After the invasion of Iraq a little more of my naivety dropped away, I realised that the invasion was already inevitable by the time we took to the streets and that mass protest is relatively easy for governments to ignore when it the message is diluted by other causes. As far as the country was concerned I was in a minority. The nation had rediscovered its taste for protest and over the next seven years they became even more popular and often more violent. The G8 and G20 protests looked like they were becoming more of a day out for the clubless football hooligan than the starting point of a serious debate about current global economics. The number of groups involved in these protests blurred the water so much it was impossible to work out what they wanted. Anarchists have long been stereotyped as directionless and disorganised rather than a serious left wing movement based on an agreed manifesto. These protests only helped fuel these stereotypes as they seemed to lack any clarity and direction.
The rebirth of protest coincided with the rise of scepticism. Injustices, perceived or real, perpetrated by governments in the western world has caused anger and confusion for many. Information on supposed conspiracies and more provable atrocities spread by the internet has empowered a generation to believe they know more about what is going on than the government would like them to. The collapse of the global financial sector has shed light on the truth that the world leaders aren’t infallible and all knowing, but flawed and human and as such often wrong. All these feelings have helped forge an angry generation.
People are angrier now than they were in 1997, and with good reason. The world is a more dangerous place then it was back then. I’m not just referring to the threat of terrorism but financially it is more dangerous, hedge funds are trimming themselves and the river of endless credit is suffering a drought. All pretty scary, but all solvable. The democratic process was designed to give people a voice, an opportunity to air their concerns and do something about them. That voice was not so much stolen but certainly hushed on May 12th 2010 when Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats announced his party would form a coalition with their ideological enemies the Conservatives.
The one power we have in a democracy is to vote for our elected representative. On 6th May 2010 that’s what 29,691,780 people in the UK did. 10,703,754 of them for the Conservatives, 8,609,527 for Labour and 6,836,824 for Liberal democrats. Due to the ideological leanings of the separate parties it could easily be argued that around 15,500,000 people voted against the current Conservatives government, that’s not including the three and half million who voted for other minor parties. So when the Liberal Democrats decided to form the coalition there were a fair number in the country that felt hard done by. Not only was a party taking power on an incredibly slender majority but almost seven million people, myself included, felt like they had just had their democratic right to be heard ignored. The questions arose were the Lib Dems throwing away their ideological beliefs for a chance at power or had they figured it would be easier to change the system from within? After just five months in office the truth sadly seems to be the former. The move by the Liberal Democrats to form the coalition put a government in power which is politically and ideologically disconnected with a majority of the electorate. As if to exacerbate this disconnection the very same government has charged itself, through a mix of economic necessity and ideology, with the job of making some of the most drastic economic cuts the country has ever seen.
So it is with a renewed scepticism of the political process and ever increasing anger and fear of the ruling elite that the true heirs to ideological protests of the past have taken to the streets of London. No longer are students merely content with drinking the bar dry but are highly politicised and motivated by the knowledge that a life in debt to the government is not an enviable one. The protester numbers themselves are not as big yet as those of the anti-war movement or the G20 but the support and anger for them from the working and middle classes seem to be greater than either. Their strongest weapon and their most likely downfall is the support that they are receiving from non-students. As the protests grow their greatest challenge will be keeping the message clear and un-muddied by the hundreds of other issues currently leaving people feeling disenfranchised. If they can manage this in the same way the poll tax protesters did in 1990 they may achieve some sort of victory, if not then they risk becoming another violent curiosity like the G8 protests which whilst they are condemned, seem to be mostly ignored by those in power.
So the quiet years are over as it seems a winter of discontent is upon us and where was I when all this began? Sitting in a half full bar ignoring the slogans and information around me and trying to drink as much as I could before the prices went back up to £2 at 4pm.