>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…
|‘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.
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?