When the coalition government announced its plans to raise tuition fees in England to £9000 at the end of last year, protesters and activists turned out in force to oppose them, with huge rallies held in London, occupations at universities across the country and a new wave of student politicisation spreading like wildfire through social networking and mobile phones.
They continued to protest when an apparent conspiracy between media and government resulted in a mass focus on the violence perpetrated by a tiny percentage of those present in reports of the events. They kept chanting when the police kettled them for hours on end in spite of protesting peacefully, when children as young as twelve were denied access to water and medical aid for nine hours in freezing temperatures; and when enormous horses charged at them for no apparent reason, resulting in several serious injuries. They weren’t even deterred by Cameron’s repeated refusal to acknowledge or engage with their concerns or his failure publicly to address the thousands of people involved in the movement. And they continued to march while the government axed the Education Maintenance Allowance and voted in favour of the policy in both houses, effectively sounding the death toll for access to education for those from underprivileged backgrounds for years to come.
Now, as the protests continue afresh, spurred by the emergence of new factions and leaders and wielding new tactics and technology such as the new ‘Sukey’ technology for ‘kettle evasion’, one cannot help but wonder, what is the point to it all? Tens of thousands have marched. Hundreds have held occupations for weeks on end. Millions of facebook groups, twitter feeds and MySpace pages have been set up and exchanged at lightning speed across the internet. Support has flooded in from politicians, activists, philosophers, academics and lecturers across the globe. Many have been injured, others arrested. But have they made any difference, for a moment, to a single government action or decision?
Don’t get me wrong – this might sound like a criticism of the student protest movement – far from it. Rather it is a dismayed incredulity at the arrogance and hypocrisy of a coalition government (arguably the type of political alliance who should be the most eager to listen to their voters) prepared to ride rough-shod over the voices, concerns, and efforts of an entire generation, and the opportunities and rights to education of many more to come.
The government have derided and condemned the young activists as thuggish yobs who are too stupid to understand that new tuition fees policy will actually benefit them. They have dismissed them as rioters whose violent tactics negate their right to be taken seriously and write off the morality of their cause. And at every turn they have refused to engage in debate or consider the issues these young people have raised. Their argument, one repeated by many who have seen the carefully selective media footage of a single, old, empty police van being graffitied after its abandonment in the centre of a crowd of kettled protesters, is that there is simply no justification for violence or disruption as forms of protest within a democracy. Yet the crux of that argument rests on the assumption that a democracy assures a voice to every individual, and that those voices will be heard by a responsible government, and achieve at least some form of response. How can a government stand behind that argument when they largely gained power as a direct result of the votes of the very people they are now abusing and ignoring, specifically because of a high-profile, concrete campaign pledge which they have completely failed to keep?
How can you argue that protest is immoral and unacceptable in a democratic government when that government itself has turned its back on the principles of democracy? And furthermore, how can you stand behind one democratic principle whilst utterly decimating another by denying thousands of people the simple freedom of movement and speech as you hold them for hours without charge or cause simply to restrict and muffle their voices of protest? If a government is to rule on the understanding that its people must not resort to violence or rioting because their promise to listen to the voices of the voters renders these forms of protest redundant, then they must listen to the voices of the voters if their argument is to stand.
Meanwhile a generation of bright, educated young people who have made the effort to organise and rouse themselves into a coherent movement to fight for a political ideal in which they believe, are being systematically ignored, smeared, disillusioned and alienated by both government and police. It is a shockingly short-sighted, desperate effort to force through the ill-planned policies of a panicky, higgledy piggledy, makeshift cabinet. Before this, young people were slandered and criticised for being square-eyed; they were dubbed the “Facebook generation”. Now they are criticised for their violence and eagerness to riot and cause civil disruption. They are damned if they do protest and damned if they don’t. And nobody is prepared to take any notice of them anyway. How desperately ironic now sounds Cameron’s election slogan: “fighting for the great ignored”.
When a whole generation of young, educated people grows up with no faith in government and little respect for the police; when the desperate frustration of the ignored results in far greater violence and unrest; when the next generation encounters an enormous social divide between the wealthy who can afford education and the poor who cannot; and when Cameron and Clegg are finally forced, at the poll booth, to listen to the voice of the people; perhaps only then will they realise the enormity of these mistakes.