Friday 11th March. A freshly-purchased bagel plummets to the ground, its owner’s mouth agape with shock, as a motorcade of two black Jaguars and three police cars comes to a halt outside Bramber House, at the University of Sussex, and Theresa May, the Home Secretary manoeuvres herself from the back seat of the Jag, the door held open by her chauffeur.
Her trademark steely expression belied by a contrite posture, she looks rather silly with East Slope her backdrop, rather than the Palace of Westminster.
With a hurried, underhand gesture, she signals her chauffeur, and he obliges, handing her a large megaphone. Taking several steps backward into the middle of Refectory Road, she holds the megaphone to her mouth, inclines her head to look toward the roof of Bramber House, and, her voice now amplified, she addresses the coven of students gathered there, the patches of red felt affixed to their jackets quavering timidly in the early-spring breeze.
“This is the Home Secretary speaking. Please leave Bramber House immediately. Your gallant occupation of a centrally-heated, minorly consequential university administration building for two nights has captured hearts and minds the length and breadth of the country, and, as a result, the Home Office has decided to ignore the repercussions of setting such a precedent, and will now agree to your demands: Luqman Onikosi will not be deported, and we will turn our immigration policy over to No Borders Sussex. Oh, and something about tuition fees…”
Or perhaps not. The neutral bystander, however, might be forgiven for thinking this to be the realistic aim of this latest visitation of hobbyist protest to plague Sussex.
I call it a plague because of its aesthetic similarities to the bubonic variety of the aforementioned: rancid spots of black and red invade the body and the campus, before eventually taking the nerve centre by storm.
One can only express the deepest sympathy with our mediaeval ancestors that the similarities did not extend to efficacy; there would have been so much less suffering if the Black Death had given up after two days as well.
The point remains a valid one, though, however creatively I choose to make it: what exactly is the point? First, the occupation of Bramber House, and, second, the protests in London last weekend over David Cameron’s tax avoidance demonstrate to us exactly how irrelevant the student voice has become.
Valiant though both causes are, the University of Sussex still hasn’t released any kind of statement in support of Onikosi, and, even if David Cameron resigns, it won’t have anything to do with the Rainbow Coalition of the Eternally Aggrieved who descended on Whitehall last weekend, demanding his resignation, and ending up just having a rave instead.
The success of protests rests crucially on winning over the support of the public at large, and the public at large have never cared less about what students think or say. What’s more, this motley crew of fair-weather fools have only themselves to blame.
First, a caveat: I am not speaking out against protest. No, protest has a vital part in any society, and our great democracy is built on the blood, sweat and tears of a thousand protests, from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, to the million-strong march against the Iraq War in 2003.
Governments remain scared of popular protests, as they threaten to coalesce public opinion against them in a manner whose expediency is matched only by its ferocity. I am speaking out against counter-productive protests, and the problem is this: student protests aren’t popular, and so the Government doesn’t care.
Let’s look back to the mass protests of last May, after a majority Tory government was returned for the first time in 23 years. I said it at the time, and I say it again now: What were they protesting against?
There was a democratic, free and fair election. All sides had the opportunity to engage with voters, get their message across, and ask for the electorate’s support.
The answer is, of course, that the protesters just weren’t happy with the democratic result. How dare the electorate spite them by voting for the Conservative Party? How dare they deny them the pleasure of watching David Cameron unceremoniously ejected from Downing Street? And so they took to the streets, their technicolour parade resembling a cross-section of the gobstopper most people watching wanted to shove in their mouths.
They threatened MPs, and defaced war memorials, all as part of a protest supposedly to actually capture hearts and minds.
This is not the behaviour of a serious protest movement committed to winning over public opinion; this is the tantrum of a few ideological idiots who didn’t get what they want.
Storming round, chanting “anti, anti, anti-capitalista” while you throw heavy objects at the police is no way to get the moderate public on your side, especially when they think students have it pretty good anyway; it just makes you look like a toddler in a hoodie, in dire need of a smacked bottom and 10 minutes on the naughty step.
We saw this spoilt and entitled attitude again, in their vicious and vituperatively abusive reaction to the brave article of my colleague in contribution, Lucy Williams. Was it offensive? No. Was it as aggressively vitriolic as this piece? No.
Its only crime was to disagree; to call their occupation counter-productive; to breach the bubble of their self-enforcing delusion, with the hurtful dagger of cognitive dissonance, and tell them what they know deep-down anyway, that their hobbyist protest achieved absolutely nothing, except demonstrate to all and sundry that Onikosi’s campaign is backed by the sort of people who don’t mind interrupting the work of others for two days, and can afford to do nothing for those two days themselves.
Watching them trudge dejectedly down the stairs on the 11th March was a very odd experience, as they sung “Power to the People” like the victims of a moral outrage on par with the historic Trail of Tears. Yeah, right – maybe if the Trail of Tears had ended in cosmopolitan Brighton.
Of course, the explanation for this is that they don’t really care. From tuition fees, to the Prevent strategy, to tax avoidance, our crop of scandalised, self-identifying socialists really couldn’t give a toss.
They enjoy the edifying veil of victimhood, as they’re mostly so privileged that they’ve never been able to wear it before they met so many others so keen to engage in this charade. As long as it’s exciting, it makes them feel like they’re part of a nascent revolutionary movement, and sufficiently left-wing to justify invoking the name of HRH Caroline Lucas, they’ll turn up in droves, invigorated by the prospect of a day of making noise and exchanging Instagram follows.
It’s a monumental circle-jerk; they do it because they have so much time on their hands, which is precisely what the people they need to persuade for their protests to achieve anything lack.
And so, we come to the central problem. By repeatedly alienating precisely the demographic most vital to win over, they have become the equivalent of the boy (or girl, or individual who tirelessly insists on not identifying in the binary) who cried wolf.
From the dungaree-clad Sloanes who pop a pill for the day, to the red-and-black-shrouded anarchists who are more interested in packing smoke bombs, student protests over the last few years have been the epitome of how not to win over the hearts and minds of the silent majority, who are famously impervious to what they perceive as either privileged whingeing, or radical, mob violence.
Instead, they have been thoroughly counter-productive, and, by protesting in equally unpopular ways against whatever takes their fancy, engineered a climate in which even when students do speak out about something important, like a death-sentence deportation, or tax avoidance by the nation’s leader, no one is actually listening.