Two weeks ago, they said it was impossible to resist the cuts. But after the spectacular eruption of student protests in Central London last week, it seems realistic to demand the impossible.
Already they are calling it 10/11, and Ground Zero was the plush headquarters of the Conservative Party, 30 Millbank on the bank of the river Thames. Rolling news featured wall-to-wall images of broken windows, barricades, and injured cops as a stupefied procession of pundits took grim views of it all.
Undoubtedly, the protests have pushed student protest to the front of the public agenda. As the BBC’s home affairs editor Mark Easton admitted, “The emotional drama of an old-fashioned student demo turning ugly provided pictures which shunted the story of a protest march against tuition fees from a few paragraphs on page 17 to the front page of every paper.”
But the added publicity was not to the liking of mainstream student leaders. National Union of Students (NUS) president Aaron Porter called the rioters “despicable”. NUS Scotland president Liam Burns added that he would do nothing “to defend the actions of a few hundred idiots”.
The notion that the peaceful protest – which numbered some 50,000 – was unjustly sidelined by a tiny band of “extremists” from elsewhere (some crazy foreign country, perhaps?) was common currency. Tommy Gore, president of Glasgow University Student Representatives’ Council (SRC), agreed that the Millbank protest “was around 200 to 300-strong”, but stressed that “there weren’t any Glasgow University students involved in the violence”.
Tommy should be corrected on both counts. I was at Millbank with a group of students from Glasgow University. We were surrounded by a sea of protesters, at least 5,000 strong, and aerial footage confirms this.
Guardian reporters have subsequently observed that talk of cynical provocateurs was “nonsense” and that the protest was made up of “ordinary students who were viscerally angry.” This was certainly my experience of the demo, and of the many thousands who expressed their fury at Millbank. When individuals took mindless actions, like throwing a fire extinguisher off the roof, the crowd as one chanted “stop throwing shit.”
While I welcome the work Tommy and Liam have put into building an anti-cuts movement in Scotland, I feel it is time to take issue with their tactics and their handling of the media. Their failure to account for and sympathise with the passionate anger of thousands of ordinary students risks splitting the movement beyond the activist milieu and a cosy inactive bureaucracy. This is for two reasons.
Firstly, by spreading the hearsay that Millbank was the work of agent provocateurs, they have allowed character assassinations to spread through the right-wing media. This has led to individuals from the anti-cuts movement being singled out, harassed, and victimised in cases of trial by media.
On the bus back from London, I was warned by sources close to the BBC and the Daily Mail that I would be the victim of the one of these media attacks. As it was, they picked on another Scottish target, Bryan Simpson, who stood as a presidential candidate at Strathclyde University last year.
Bryan is a popular political leader at Strathclyde and he has not been convicted of any crime. The media have singled him out in a truly reprehensible fashion, and misleading statements about the size and the causes of Millbank from Tommy and Liam do nothing to help him.
Secondly, their understanding of the workings of the media and its “news values” is out of touch. As Mark Easton and a host of commentators have noted, a procession of 50,000 students may be worthy, but it makes for dull television. The real message of mass demonstrations is almost always lost because the mass media prefers to ignore “peaceful” actions.
To take an obvious example, the Scottish Trade Unions Congress (STUC) called an anti-cuts demonstration in Edinburgh three weeks ago, attracting 25,000 people. This received paltry media coverage. As far as viewers, readers, and listeners were concerned, the STUC protest never happened.
Of course, this shows how little trade union and student leaders have moved with the times. It is not enough to take 50,000 for a walk through Central London. These days, the media demands that we use our mass numbers to effect, to create visible signifiers of public fury. The Millbank demonstrators were merely supplying this, something the pedestrian likes of Aaron Porter are singularly incapable of providing. Aaron can moan all he likes about this, but he should blame the game, not the player.
The actions of Millbank now give the leaders of the anti-cuts movement a platform to explain their case to the public, if they are willing to use it. And this is now the key test for Tommy, Liam, Aaron and their colleagues in student representation. Will they throw in the towel at the first sign of a vicious right-wing backlash, or will they continue to fight for tax-funded education and learn the right lessons from Millbank?
I really hope that our student leaders will use the platform of Millbank to explain this context to people. But the evidence so far is not promising. Instead of pushing forward the battle of ideas, I sometimes feel like the Tories are facing up to a gang of shrinking violets who will do anything to avoid the glare of the media spotlight.
Before Millbank, many of us felt a sense of earnest fury at the biggest public sector cuts since 1919. But it is only now that we know how vulnerable the state really is. Effective leadership, talking up our strength and building the morale of our forces, can affect massive political shifts in our favour. Millbank is a golden opportunity to explain that we do not have to take the assault lying down. We should embrace it as such, not kowtow to the gutter press.