>It was twenty two years ago today…

>That student demonstration in London against the Tory government that turned violent?

I was there. Quite close to where it all kicked off, in fact, although by accident and I missed the more dramatic bits that got on the telly.

But don’t worry,  I wasn’t bloke with the fire extinguisher. And actually,  I didn’t leven leave the house today. And did nothing more violent that scrawl some red lines on a draft of someone’s PhD.  You see it, was all more than 20 years ago…

On 24 November 1988 along with with several coach loads of Leeds University students went down to London for the biggest student protest of the decade. It was  a nationwide National Union of Students demonstration to protest against (shock horror) the abolition of student maintenance grants and their replacement with loans.  We were genuinely outraged and waves of mobilization – added to the prospect of a good day out with out mates- even reached the rather apolitical, but very friendly Russian Department. As I recall coach tickets were about £3 or £4. It was quite a warm day, as I remember, and we all got quick a kick out of marching through the streets and chanting – sense of empowerment or identify incentives, I guess I would call it today – and there was a real buzz to being in large, like-minded crowd of people just like us.
Then for some reason we ended up in a milling crowd in a dead end somewhere near the Houses of Parliament. We were by Westminster Bridge and we couldn’t go anywhere. We all got quite bored and fed up and the crowd probably thinned out slightly, giving it a slightly more militant and political composition. There were certainly an impressive variety of far-left and Trotskyist newspaper sellers, which – being interested in theories of state capitalism and the like in those days – I could probably have ticked off trainspotter style. I’m not quite sure what happened next. The mood was, I suppose, probably getting uglier. I remember a police inspector walking ineffectually through the milling crowd with a megaphone telling us to disperse and everyone conspicouously ignoring him, although I don’t think we had any very militant intentions. We just didn’t want to day to be over. In the end my friend, now I believe a successful lawyer in California although we lost touch year ago, suggested that call it a day and find a pub.
This was a pretty convincing argument even during the days of High Thatcherism. We didn’t find a pub and, with anti-Zellig like precision, we missed the “Battle of Westminster” A few minutes later mounted police  spectacularly charged through the milling crowd at the end of the bridge and brought the impasse to an end. The university’s more militant student revolutinaries, I was told, had cunningly taken the tube over the river, but been arrested. Back on the coach, we booed as the radio news reported that students had rained missiles down on police and cheered when we learned that the Queen Mother had been stuck in the traffic chaos we had caused.
‘Major conflict’: The young Dr Sean woz ‘ere (almost)

Back on our early morning Russian grammar class the next day – present participles, I think it was ( I was rather good at them) – we wondered what had happened. Clearly, we hadn’t been manipulated by sinister Trotskyists, although we couldn’t vouch that they hadn’t led the march somewhere it shouldn’t have gone by packing the front ranks. Perhaps we wouldn’t have cared if we had known. At least, we thought  they saved from being stuck in some park listening to some dull as ditchwater speech the then National Union of Students President, Maeve Sherlock (now Baroness Sherlock).

Like a lot (but not all) protest in the 1980s, it all came to nothing – and I suspect deep down  we inwardly knew that at the time –  and the system of student loans duly  came in in my final year. On graduation, having been pretty frugal, I owed the state-back Student Loans Company the princely sum of £300.

This is, of course, all history. The Battle of Westminster – or perhaps we should say, Brief But Somewhat Violent Police Charge of Westminster is now the subject of a much cited academic article about social identity and crowd psychology: it is  quite right that it was cock-up rather conspiracy han and that , yes, as Social Identity Analysis suggested we were slightly been radical and less law-abding after the event than before, but we didn’t all rush to join the Socialist Workers Party.

It was, of course, a different age then. No internet, no mobiles, no Twitter, no Facebook.  Approximately, half the student numbers of today (although the queues for the banks of photcopiers in hte Library were horrendous( None of us would have understood the ‘tuition fees’. And I would have no more believed that communism would collapse than that men from Mars would land outside Leeds Town Hall.

And in hindsight, it all seems rather than cosy and innocent, although after Mrs Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987, the papers were full of predictions that a Maoist-style free market Cultural Revolution was about the be unleashed. Perhaps it was and I never noticed.

So having a break for coffee I watch Guardian online footage of the London Day of Action with marchers trooping past UCL. How does it all compare? The atmosphere, placards and slogans seem curiously the same – has no one thought of a catchier slogan than “They Say Cutback, We Say Fightback” in two decades –  and the numbers (around 50,000) are similar too, although the current protest seem slightly bigger and to have a momentum missing im 1988. The Twitter feed of the demo – not something available in 1988 (my reporter friend from Leeds Student tasked to track Maeve Sherlock quickly lost his story in the unfolding chaos) – suggests today’s students are about as witty as we were when it comes to doing homemade placards, although the stakes today are (for some people, at least) bigger and humour blacker.  Organizational confusion and resulting breakawy leading to a headline-grabbing clash  around a symbolic centre of power (then Westminster, today Millbank), is spookily similar – as are the debates about whether it has done the student cause a favour by crashing onto the headlines and registering  anger or just played into the hands of a hostile media. There are also the predictable accusations that the whole thing was staged by extremists (then the Socialist Workers Party, this time round anarchists).

What seems different (at least judging by the Guardian footage) is that today’s marchers are a damn sight more socially and ethnically diverse – and younger , including FE and college students- than the crowd I was in 1988: the proposed changes of 2010 seem a much bigger deal than those of 1988 and also much more of a class issue, like to see some denied big opportunities and others.In truth, however, I suspect, what has happened is that proposals have thrown into sharp relief the already class-ridden  and unequal character of higher education.

My own feelings about  events are surprisingly mixed. I am fascinated by (what might be) an unfolding social movement, but a mixture of middle age and being one of the ‘Thatcher’s Children’ generation that saw most protest lead to naught leaves me with an engrained scepticism. I also doubt that the interests of university staff and students are as closely aligned as trade union and student union leaders would have us believe. 

The new movement is inevitably overhyped. A blog post written by one of the students occupying  UCL’s Jeremy Bentham Room – a nice, undisruptive target used mainly for social events and conferences- claims student protests are inventing a new organizational model.  Actually, he seems to be re-discover the idea of the social movement in the age of Facebook and blogging  and splashing about an awful political science jargon. There’s a pleasingly in-your-face quality to all this and if this is the beginning of a the kind of multiform ‘alliance of resistance’ some trade unionists have started to image – a sort of angry-as-hell Tea Party movement  of the public sector- capable of real national impact, rather than a replay of the damp squib student protest of 1980s, then I guess that’s OK and a few pieces of schlock political science analysis are a small price to pay.

After all, who knows, maybe we are all in it together?


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