British student protests: a generation in revolt

Dave Sewell, a student activist from Britain, takes a look at the burgeoning movement of students against the education cuts

If I forget everything else, I’ll always remember November 10 for the number of people who described it as the best day of their lives. It began with a demonstration organised by the lecturers’ UCU union and the National Union of Students (NUS). Expectations were low: initially the police were told to expect a turnout of 15,000.

In the event we were 52,000, spilling out at both ends of the short street, ready to face down the politicians out to wreck education. The atmosphere was electric. As the route of the demonstration passed Millbank Tower, home of the Tory HQ, thousands poured in to occupy the courtyard, lobby and roof. And the rest is history.

The idea of student apathy has become a well-worn British cliché, and behind apathy lurks a sense of powerlessness, of despair. On November 10 we began to chip away at that cliché and the hopelessness it represents.

That demonstration was attended mainly by university students, but it was watched by millions who had been stuck in work or school and wished they had been there. The right-wing press had to quickly temper its predictable denunciations. In the words of one memorable Mail on Sunday article, the stick-wielding lefty thugs were in fact “our children”.

Mass movement

It was the birth of a mass movement. By the end of term almost 50 occupations had begun at universities and colleges.

Thousands of students were using offices and lecture theatres as a base to organise—an occupation might host a teach-in one day and then use the next to build for direct action against firms like Vodafone and Topshop, that could remove the need for education cuts by paying the taxes that they owed. In between, mass organising meetings would roll on into the early hours—although many of the occupiers did find time to engage in a “dance-off” competition via YouTube. This was despite the attempts from some university managers to drive the occupying students out by turning up the air conditioning at night to create subzero temperatures.

The occupations drew in active support from way beyond their campuses. Workers and trade unionists were welcomed with open arms and several occupations hosted general assemblies.

The youngest school and college students have become the cutting edge of the movement. After November 10 came a series of days of action—Day X (November 24), Day X2 (November 30) and Day X3 (December 9). Most major cities saw several thousand school and college students walk out on Day X, with hundreds in some of the smallest towns. Pupils went from classroom to classroom chanting “Strike, strike” and pulled out whole schools. Town halls and Lib Dem offices were occupied. In Brighton protesters took over four buildings.

Whitehall and Parliament Square in London were given the Millbank treatment on a greater scale. On Day X3, while the bill to raise tuition fees was getting its first reading in the Commons, tens of thousands of students defied the police to occupy Parliament Square and besiege their traitorous MPs. When the bill was passed, hundreds attempted to break into the Treasury chanting, “We want our money back”.

The tuition fees bill limped through its first reading at great cost: the government’s majority had been cut from 84 to 21, and three Lib Dem MPs resigned from positions in the government. The Liberal Democrats were split three ways. Even Vince Cable, the minister responsible for drafting the legislation, speculated about abstaining. Gone are the smug smiles—the fragility of the governing coalition is clear for all to see.

Not for the first time in history, the government’s weakness has been matched by its willingness to resort to force. Hundreds of students have been arrested and the casual brutality of the police astounded many. On Day X3 Jody McIntyre was dragged from his wheelchair and his brother, Finlay, was prevented from coming to his aid. Most chilling of all, 20-year-old Alfie Meadows needed three hours of emergency brain surgery to save his life after a baton-blow to the head—and the police even tried to stop him being treated at the hospital nearest the scene. Within days, Metropolitan police chief Sir Paul Stephenson was offering his resignation, not because of the violence, but because the protesters had broken through the protective bubble that is supposed to surround the royal family, defiling Prince Charles and Camilla’s car.

But even more than the violence, it was the use of the kettle that typified the policing of the protests. Thousands of very young protesters were kept penned in for eight hours on Day X, and even longer on Day X3, in freezing temperatures with no access to food, water and toilet facilities.

This police brutality was interpreted by many students as an attempt to scare and demoralise them into giving up and going home for good. The effect was instead to harden their resolve. Many of the students involved have been first time protesters, but many have memories of the protests against the invasion of Iraq. We tried marching peacefully, they say, and it got us nowhere.

This is the generation for whom the cuts would deny any hope in the future—and who lying politicians and violent cops are now denying any voice or representation within the bounds of the system. The logic of rejecting those politicians and defying those cops then leads towards seeking an alternative to that system.

I had the privilege of addressing the Whitehall kettle on a megaphone. The vast crowd went wild at every mention of a general strike or revolution. Later, small groups kept warm around burning placards and traffic cones as they discussed what this revolution would look like and how it would come about. The level of political generalisation is astounding. This revolt is about education, but it is also about housing shortages and benefit cuts. It is about police racism and stop and search. It is about class.

Students and workers

In all of this comparisons with 1968 are hard to avoid. There are many important differences but the parallels are striking. In 1968 almost every worker in France had a reason to fight, yet few had the confidence. The silence was broken by the students who kick-started a revolt that shook the world so spectacularly that 40 years later Nicolas Sarkozy defined his presidential project as dismantling the legacy of 1968. He warned his contemporaries to “watch the youth like milk on the boil”.

Then, as now, young people have a special role to play in the class struggle. We have a greater stake in fighting for the future, and less to lose—from jobs to mortgages—in the present. We are almost entirely free from the “nightmare of the past”—the memory of the defeats that have conditioned the working class and the organisations that claim to represent it.

At the end of last term the student struggle in Britain was going from strength to strength. Even as most of the largest university occupations were shutting down for the Christmas break another wave was just beginning. The Day X3 demonstration was the largest since that of November 10, and in the kettle we chanted “We’ll be back”.

As Gary Younge has pointed out in The Guardian, “The danger posed by the students is that of contagion.” The student revolt in 1968 started a general strike and almost a revolution. In 2010 university occupations sent delegations to visit workplaces and trade unionists answered their call by providing food and blankets, mobilising to defend the occupations from eviction, paying for transport to demonstrations and even, in a few cases, walking out to join them.

The resistance has taken off and everything we have needs to be thrown behind it, from the solidarity of our union branches to the ideas of the world we have to win. Students and workers—unite and fight!

Socialist Review UK


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