I was among the thousands of disaffected students protesting against the Government’s rise in tuition fees in spirit last term; absent from the actual protests because I was required to give a talk on “the representation of power during the Enlightenment” to my fellow History scholars. The representation of power was a lot healthier in the eighteenth century, let me tell you.
The Enlightenment was defined by the emphasis it placed on science and reason as opposed to religion and tradition. As I returned to the troublesome twenty-first century and followed the afternoon’s violent scenes on BBC News, I could not help but feel we are overdue another Enlightenment. The last one was, after all, over 300 years ago.
Looking on from the discomfort of my dingy halls of residence, I was angry at the broken promises and angry that the powers that be were seemingly so unwilling to listen to the students who would ultimately shape the country’s future. But above all else, I was deeply saddened.
How did it come to this? I am neither naïve nor idealistic enough to suggest a university education should be free – but to triple the cost? How can any Government justify that? Nobody won on that day, and the extent of the loss to certain groups will remain unknown for some time.
Given the stark and very public manner in which the Education Bill divided the Party, the “Liberal Democrats” – which are neither liberal nor democratic – are likely to emerge from this sorry chapter in British history worst.
Much has been said about the way in which the Lib Dems have conducted themselves in recent weeks, some of it is untrue; some of it is positively malicious. However, the feeling among students is one of betrayal. The Party seen by many as the voice of young people everywhere lied. They said they would do one thing and they did another and while they can try and defend their U-turn by hastily reiterating Cameron’s “students won’t have to start paying back their loans until they are successful” spiel – success apparently being defined by earning £21K or more – nothing will change the fact that they were elected under false pretences.
In the past, losing the student vote may not have been so damaging. Statistics for the last general election indicate for example that only 44% of 18-24 year-olds voted as opposed to 73% of 55-64 year-olds; however, voter apathy goes in waves and if anything was going to prompt students to head to the voting polls, it was this.
Indeed, signs of a backlash are already evident. On the Conservative party’s website no less, there are statistics taken from a recent study by Lord Ashcroft into the political scene which show that “only 54% of people who voted Lib Dem in May expect to so again”. And that “27% of Lib Dem voters want a Labour government after the next election and 24% want a Labour/Lib Dem coalition”.
Students then can at least be smug about the reality facing the Liberal Democrats: a reality that is likely to see them return to political wilderness for the unforeseeable future having failed to deliver their promises when it really mattered. In a recent interview with The Independent, Nick Clegg said: “If there’s one thing I’m not going to apologise for as the leader of the Liberal Democrats in government after 60 or 70 years of being out of government, it’s that you just cannot avoid but deal with the world the way it is.” That may be so, but history will not look kindly on Nick Clegg.
But what of the students he is said to have betrayed? Did they cover themselves in glory when marching for what they believed in? Quite possibly, although we can sadly never be certain, such was the presence of a small group seemingly intent on turning what was meant to be a peaceful protest into a media field day.
It is so frustrating to think that our country’s intelligent, politicised, enlightened students were upstaged by a group of opportunistic extremists able to divert the spotlight away from holding a duplicitous government accountable which was, let us not forget, what the march was about. It angers me when I read comments that suggest all protesters are fickle thrill seekers. Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, for example, recently told the BBC that: “It’s tremendously exhilarating. Riots are fun. The self-importance, the adrenaline rush of slight – but not serious – danger.’ Such comments are belittling and patronising, yet they are commonplace.
David Cameron was recently quoted as saying: “It’s no good to say this was a very small minority. It wasn’t; there were quite a number of people who clearly were there wanting to pursue violence and destroy property.” No one can say for certain how right he is on this and certainly, media outlets will always be drawn to the most ‘shocking’ story, which in this case was really not going to help the well meaning protesters of whom there were many, like my flatmates, who were there for the right reasons.
This was certainly not to get on television – as seemed to be the limit of some students’ ambitions – but to make their point and have their voice heard. They did not return giddy and excited; instead, they were shell-shocked. One of my flatmates was left with the blood of Guardian journalist Shiv Malik on her jumper, who had his head cracked open by an overzealous police officer.
To say the law adopted a hard line is an understatement; the most recent demonstration of this being when eighteen-year-old Edward Woolard was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of Tory headquarters. What he did in those seconds that have since been described by his defence team as ‘a moment of madness’, and it was undoubtedly reckless and dangerous. But to receive such a punishment so as to be made an example of is ethically questionable to say the least.
Besides, to whom are the courts advising? The Badger’s recent online poll shows that at Sussex, at least 71% of students feel that we do not have a right to violent protesting. Given the sheer saturation of media publicity depicting students as evil and wicked fiends, this statistic is surprising, is it not?
The law enforcement agencies are another sector of society to have suffered as a result of the march.
Whether police or protestors started the violence remains unknown; however, what is becoming increasingly clear is that there were several instances of unprovoked police brutality. The latest story to emerge is that of a policeman dragging a disabled protester out of his wheelchair. The justification given for this was that he was wheeling towards them. Does that sound absolutely absurd to anybody else?
I do not envy the police in times of protest but at some point, an element of common sense has to enter the equation. An assessment of what kind of threat a wheelchair bound man possesses for example.
I forecast similar kinds of protests in the future which will not necessarily be led exclusively by students. Why? Because we are yet to discover the point at which Governments take notice of the people they govern. It wasn’t the peaceful march against the Iraq War and it wasn’t the more heated fees protest. If the police kettle, baton down innocent people and, as is being suggested, introduce water cannons as a means of defending a coalition government out of favour with most then violence, sadly, is inevitable.
So whom can we turn to, to take us out of these dark times? Ed Miliband’s Labour Party perhaps?
When recently asked by the BBC whether, if elected, Miliband would cut fees, he said that the Lib Dems’ broken promises proved that you should never make a promise that you can’t keep.
It was a weak reply from someone whom I fear may prove to be a weak politician; more confident in the failings of the Coalition than of his Party’s own convictions. It came ahead of an unproductive Prime Ministers Questions, in which name-calling was resorted to when Cameron looked to insult Miliband by calling him a “student politician and someone who would never be anything more than that”.
Miliband retorted by citing Cameron’s unseemly behaviour when at university to his backbenchers’ delight. It was pathetic and worrying. These are the men; these are the Oxbridge middle classes, the affluent, never-wanting-for-anything men charged with knowing what is best for the future of our country’s education system.
Many groups emerged from the rise in university fees with their reputations damaged. But none more so than the fickle politicians who stood back and allowed it to happen, whose fast-tracked root into politics has seen them bypass those whose futures will be compromised by a lifetime spent re-paying other peoples’ debt.