Thursday 24th November saw a day of nationwide protest organised by university and college students, lecturers and activists across the country, from huge marches and demonstrations in Whitehall to individual protests and occupations at individual campuses.
In Glasgow, Sussex, Liverpool, Dundee, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Cambridge, Aberystwyth, Manchester, Cardiff, Leeds, Oxford, Manchester, Warwick, Birmingham, Essex and Bristol thousands of students of all ages joined together to send a powerful message to the coalition government over its proposals to triple tuition fees to a maximum of £9000 per year, whilst largely withdrawing government funding from universities.
In Whitehall thousands of students congregated to make their voices heard, coping with freezing cold temperatures, whilst Nick Clegg, who refused to face the protesters, feebly sidestepped the issues on Jeremy Vine’s radio show, claiming that he “hates” having to break promises, “in life as in politics”. He seems rather to have missed the point.
Students across the country have described themselves as following in the footsteps of the young protesters of 1968, yet despite the sheer numbers turning out to show their outrage, their complaints seem thus far to be falling on deaf ears. It seems to me that the reason for this is twofold.
Government refuses to budge
The government has made it clear that they are simply not going to be moved by campaigns and protestors, with Clegg resolutely sticking to his argument that in a coalition government it is simply impossible to keep one’s election pledges. Meanwhile, education secretary Michael Gove has made it clear that the protesters will not be changing his course of action, loftily claiming; “on any issue my mind can be changed by passionate argument and logic,” but going on to state point blank that his mind would not be changed on tuition fees. He warned student protesters that “the way that more heads and hearts will be won in this country is by reasoned argument”. Cameron too accepted students’ right to peaceful protest but focused on the few instances of violence and scuffles that had broken out during the march, announcing that “people have a right to engage in lawful and peaceful protest, but there is no place for violence or intimidation.”
Whilst stubborn government refusal to acknowledge its mistakes or listen to the overwhelming feeling of its constituents is the first major reason why the protests are unlikely to be successful, this condescending and disapproving attitude from Gove and Cameron brings me on to the second.
Dismissal of student protesters
The government, in what can only be described as a shameful and cowardly act of condescension and deliberate obtuseness, have chosen, instead of confronting the issues of tuition fees head on, to paint the protesters across the country as some kind of lawless, yobbish rabble, who do not deserve a reasoned response or any meaningful negotiation because of the nature of their methods of protest.
Prejudice against young people
In this they have been joined by the police and the national media, in the most appalling act of discrimination and maligning of young people that this country has seen for years. Tens of thousands of protesters acted peacefully and responsibly yesterday, with only minor scuffles breaking out as must be inevitable at any such enormous gathering of people, reportedly mainly caused by troublemakers hijacking the opportunity to riot, who were not students or related to the cause at all.
Yet the metropolitan police, no doubt over-keen to make up for their embarrassing lack of presence at the previous demonstration, forcibly surrounded and contained thousands of young people and protesters within the Whitehall area yesterday, preventing them from proceeding with their march, and refusing to allow thousands to leave or go home, in spite of freezing cold conditions that forced many to light makeshift fires on the streets. This treatment of young people as if they were all criminals is laughably heavy handed, and seems to be playing perfectly into the government’s cowardly scheme to debase and dismiss the protesters simply because they are mostly young people, rather than seriously confronting the issues they have raised.
Nick Clegg leaned heavily on this tactic when he tried to claim that the protests had been “completely ruined” by the tiny minority of protesters who had resorted to low level violence. He tried to paint protesting students as idiots who didn’t even know what they were protesting against, urging them to “look at the details” and implying that they would then suddenly realise how wonderful his plan was. Yet he made no acknowledgement of the fact that the trebled fees, complete cut of university state funding, and Liberal Democrat U-turn against which students are railing, are all absolutely accurate and legitimate issues.
The media, too, have been getting in on the government act of dismissing protesters by patronisingly suggesting that they are young and stupid, with one BBC interviewer telling a student protest leader that the reason behind the protests was that it is simply easy to stir up students to a big march without them really knowing or understanding the cause, as if to suggest that they are doing it for some kind of personal enjoyment, whilst another news site suggested ‘kids’ were simply excited at the prospect of a day off school.
That such pathetically constructed slurs should be levelled against bright young people, taking time out from their studies to show their passion and concern about the devastating actions of a turncoat government, is truly tragic in a country where politicians have complained for so long about young peoples’ political apathy.
As a young person, recently a student myself, I can understand the difficulties the government is facing with the deficit and difficult economic times. I can accept that hard decisions have to be taken to get the economy moving again, and I can even understand that the Liberal Democrats are simply not in a position to be able to keep their election pledges as they are not in full power. But what I absolutely cannot accept, what has outraged and appalled me, has been the sheer cowardice and blatant prejudice the government has shown in the way they have dealt with and referred to the young people involved in these protests.
Nick Clegg championed the student vote, courted young people and encouraged them to become involved in politics – now they have voted him into office he has utterly reneged on the chief election promise that caused them to vote for him. Rather than apologising profusely, he not only refuses to meet or truly confront their grievances, but has the cowardice and gall to join forces with Cameron in implying that they are simply a bunch yobbish, misinformed ne’er-do-wells who do not deserve the courtesy of a response. He should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.