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.
The student voice has made itself irrelevant
First of all, I agree that some of these protests may have little to no effect, and might even be counterproductive. But to suggest that the 2015 General Election could not warrant legitimate protest is ridiculous.
I acknowledge your point about layabout students who seem more concerned by ‘the rebellion’ (or whatever they’re inhaling) than their apparent political cause of the day. Such people irritate me, I must confess. But I don’t assume that every student who takes part in a protest is naive, nor do I assume that their cause is without merit.
“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?”
I wasn’t there and I can’t be sure, but even I can take a guess. Can’t you?
Perhaps the election of a Conservative government on 24% of the national vote (its most narrow result ever)? Combined, perhaps, with that government’s election manifesto (promises of hard[er] hutting austerity and the perception that the Conservatives had decided upon young people as an easy target, among other things)?
“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.”
Many people feel that our electoral system is extremely unrepresentative, unfair and undemocratic, given the diversity of the modern political climate. As you are a UKIP member (from your article on TheTab), surely you should recognise that First Past the Post is on its last legs (the one time I ever had the displeasure of meeting Nigel Farage was at the Vote For Change Convention in 2009, where he was arguing exactly this; supporting democratic elections through proportional representation), and the 2015 election offered its most fractured and unrepresentative parliamentary result in history.
The Electoral Reform Society calls the 2015 General Election, the “most disproportional election to date in the UK, [wherein] millions voted for smaller parties only to see their efforts result in single-digit representation, and a majority government returned to Parliament on less than 37% of the vote and with the support of just 24% of the electorate”.
I am dubious of anyone professing to know what “the silent majority” (who in ‘merica apparently support Donald Trump) think or feel. Perhaps the public really do hate students, or hate anyone who protests about almost anything. But why should people let that stop them protest? A century ago, suffragettes were extremely unpopular. They were the subject of very negative media campaigns, and they threw bricks at police, set fire to post boxes, etc.
I am not suggesting that the students concerning this article have a political cause comparable with women’s suffrage. On some days – I suspect – they cannot decide upon what it is they wish to protest about. But not all students who engage in protests fall within this camp, and to suggest that people who are committed to campaigning or protesting a political cause (which many students are) should cease their activities because they might be perceived as unpopular, is ludicrous.
So, if we (Sussex students) speak and do not immediately receive the response we desire in the highest form, our speech is irrelevant?
Ridiculous. The protests on campus over #DontDeportLuqman drew national media attention, led over 400 lecturers across the UK to campaign against his deportation, and shed light on the amount of other students who have been, or are due to be, wrongly deported.
Sure, Theresa May isn’t pulling up on campus, but that doesn’t mean that nothing is happening as a result of our voice. Even if speaking up doesn’t always bring the happiest ending, it does a lot more than silence.
Will Saunders, you do not have a clue what you are talking about.
“HRH Caroline Lucas” – brilliant. Great piece
Just brilliant. I went to the University a few years ago now. This kind of lazy protest culture has really brought it down the rankings. It’s a real shame…