A respectable riot
The sympathetic public response to the London student protests demonstrates that millions oppose the coalition’s spending cuts – but nobody has much of a clue what to do about them.
Unless you take a policeman’s view of the world, riots are not necessarily a bad thing in themselves (or a good one, come to that). In political history there have been racist riots as well as riots provoked by state racism, riots against the rich and riots to drive out the poor, riots for more freedom and riots aimed to repress some section of the population. What counts is the wider context in which the riots take place – the causes, conduct and the consequences of the unrest.
What then does the little riot at this week’s big London demonstration against cuts in UK university funding and increased student fees tell us about the state of the political nation today?
First, it confirms that we are no longer accustomed to riots in London, our largely protest-free capital city. Watching the student riot around Tory Party HQ at Millbank on Wednesday, it was hard to tell which side was more naive and unprepared: the protestors or the police.
The excited student protestors first imagined that smashing an office window was a victory over ‘Tory scum’, and then did their victory dance in front of the banks of cameras (there apparently being as many photographers as rioters present) without trying to conceal their identities. More than a few of them will soon be facing up to the consequences of their naivety as prosecutors study the film for evidence. Cynics have observed that it is a sad reflection on the miseducation of the nation’s youth that some seem to think you riot first, then put the masks on afterwards. Don’t these young adults know how to dress themselves? They also failed geography, attacking the wrong building - because they assumed that the Conservative HQ was still in Millbank Tower - before they realised it had moved down the road.
But if anything, Her Majesty’s finest in the Metropolitan Police looked even more out of their depth. Police commanders more used to looking tough in a press conference than fighting street battles appeared never to have thought that there might be any unpleasantness at a demonstration involving thousands of pissed-off young people. Nor did it seem to have occurred to them that Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservative Party might just become a target for the anger.
It was as if the cops had spoken to the slightly nerdish president of the National Union of Students and assumed that everybody else on the march would behave like nice boys and girls. So they sent along a few ill-prepared officers to Millbank and were shocked when they failed to cope. Even when the heavy mob of riot cops showed up, they seemed unsure what to do or which end of their truncheons was which. They stood around filming the trouble, like the phone-wielding students – except the police films will end up as evidence in court rather than on Facebook.
Perhaps the authorities’ shock at facing some actual disorder helps to explain why this week’s unexceptional little outburst of youthful disorder has been described in some quarters as if it were the end of civilisation as we know it. Media outlets reported it as ‘the worst violence seen on the streets of London for 20 years’. If so, that would only go to show how soft and civil a city London has become in recent decades.
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The benchmarks for public unrest in modern London were, of course, the Poll Tax riots of 1990 (20 years ago, right) when rioters smashed police vans with scaffolding polls, and before that the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, when PC Keith Blakelock was beaten and stabbed to death with machetes. On Wednesday, the riot cops at Millbank were reported to have been ‘bombarded’ with short poles from placards, sort of grown-up lolly sticks. The one exception was the fire extinguisher dropped from the roof which, we are told, ‘almost killed a policeman’, which is another way of saying it didn’t hit anybody.
Protestors did smash up some furniture and fittings and set fire to their own placards, but it hardly amounted to a case of London’s burning. Or as Patrick Kielty, the normally riotously unfunny comedian, wrote on Twitter: ‘Note to Millbank Students - No petrol bombs. No balaclavas. No plastic bullets. In Belfast that’s a Rave not a Riot. See me after.’
The evidence suggests that this riot was both unusual for today, but unexceptional in historic terms. Yet what was striking about many reactions was the immediate attempt both to blow up its importance and to normalise it, to say that this is a sea-change that demonstrates how things are going to be from now on, as the coalition government’s regime of spending cuts kicks in. One liberal newspaper splashed the ubiquitous picture of somebody kicking in the Millbank window with the headline: ‘This is only the beginning.’ Another went further, using the same photo to announce that the trouble at t’Millbank marked the end of the coalition’s consensus and the start of ‘The New Politics’.
Is rioting set to be the new normal? Perhaps, and no doubt there will be more unruly protests. But it seems a considerable leap to jump from one student skirmish to declaring a new political paradigm. However, the reaction to events on Wednesday does throw some light on the public mood just now. It shows that, alongside the clunky condemnations of the trouble from every police chief and politician, there exists considerable public sympathy for the student protestors, even those at Millbank, from unusual quarters.
Before the trouble started, many had already commented on the respectable ‘middle class’ character of the mass demonstration against increased tuition fees, which included lecturers, parents and many other non-student groups. That mix appeared to extend to the Millbank protests, too – by no means all of those involved were the anarchist ‘outsiders’ some love to blame.
Normally old lefties such as me are the only ones instinctively on the side of militant protestors. Yet this time you could sense a far wider mood of public sympathy, either in the shape of over-excitement about the fightback beginning, or at least a shoulder-shrugging acceptance that this is how it has to be once the spending cuts begin to bite.
This response suggests two sides of the current public mood. On one hand, it confirms that millions of people are opposed to and worried about the public spending cuts. There is, of course, some truth in the satirists’ observation that ‘polls show most people support cuts to services other people use’. The sectional special pleading has reached the point where even police spokesmen used the Millbank trouble to argue that their service should be spared the spending axe. But the future of higher education is something that now involves many families, especially in the middle classes, and is thus an obvious rallying point for their disquiet.
As a result the students involved in this week’s protests have effectively been granted permission to riot – within limits – in much the same way that schoolchildren were given permission to bunk off school and join mainstream protests against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As then, adults are allowing the youth to act as a human shield for their own fears about the future. The student protestors become the provisional wing of the wider reaction against the consequences of public spending cuts. They are respectable rioters by appointment to middle-class opinion.
At the same time, however, this response to the protests reveals that, while many oppose the cuts, nobody has a clue about a strategy to stop them. Marches and even small riots might be endorsed as a spasm of emotional outrage at what is being done, and one that is predicted to get worse. But nobody seriously believes that this sort of thing alone is going to make much difference. Instead the students are applauded for performing as a sort of fringe theatre of protest. Meanwhile centre stage, in the isolated Westminster bubble, the coalition government feels under little real political pressure from outside and continues to declare its commitment to the cuts and the tuition fess. The relatively sympathetic response to the Millbank riot looks less like an expression of solidarity in struggle than an empathetic feeling of impotent rage.
There has been much misguided talk lately of a re-run of the 1980s. In reality Cameron is no Margaret Thatcher and today’s protests bare little comparison either to the Poll Tax riots or the miners’ strike. But there is one shade of Thatcherism that still stalks the present: her declaration that ‘There Is No Alternative’. The ghost of TINA continues to haunt every protest today. The absence of any alternative political approach to the problem of austerity, any alternative future vision of the economy and society, hampers the ability to strike a telling blow.
As a consequence of this incoherence, even radical students can be sucked into the narrow and essentially conservative outlook that dominates today, when accountants rule politics. Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas observes that, when student activists recently disrupted a Tory minister’s speech waving ‘F*** the Fees’ placards, their major political statement was ‘for every £1 invested in universities, the country gets £3.65 back!’ After Millbank this week, some students at Manchester University occupied the establishment’s offices and demanded to inspect the accounts. Accountancy may, as the old Monty Python song suggests, make the world go round today, but it seems unlikely to change it for the better.
Yes, observers might predict more riots, in a spirit either of excitement or fatalism. So be it. The UK in 2010 might not quite be ready to adopt Lenin’s advice to revolting Russian students more than a century ago: ‘Let every group learn, even if only by beating up a policeman!’ But we should certainly be ready to defend protestors’ rights against the state’s law and order machine. We should also acknowledge, however, that more protests and respectable riots will not make that much difference unless they are driven by something more in the way of politics than impotent anger and a frustrated cry of fuck the fees.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large at spiked.