Hiding behind the children

The anti-war movement is using school students as a human shield, so that grown-ups don't have to take a lead.

Jennie Bristow

Topics World

Where were you in 1991? I was on a one-pupil anti-war protest in high school, being reprimanded for neatly pinning leaflets on pin-boards.

‘We kind of agree with you’, the teachers said. ‘But you must understand that we’re not allowed to be politically partisan.’ Schoolchildren, at the time, were actively discouraged from thinking or doing anything about the Gulf War – which didn’t matter much, because none of them wanted to.

How times change, eh? Nowadays, anti-war protests are the only places that school students seem to want to be. Every day brings new reports of sit-ins, sit-downs and die-ins led by schoolchildren across the UK – the other day there was even a riot against the war. On Thursday 20 March, the first day of the war, a swarm of London schoolchildren (though nowhere near the 5000 fondly reported by the UK press) converged on Westminster, and some of them stayed all day.

While the schools and headteachers’ unions tie themselves in knots about whether to treat the kids as truants or conscientious objectors (even if the objection is to sitting in class), there is a general sense of pride in these children’s antics. Because even if bunking off school raises health and safety issues, even if it doesn’t bode well for the pupils’ performance in upcoming tests, at least these kids have finally got interested in politics. That’s great, isn’t it?

Erm – no. Maybe it suits parents and teachers to see these protests as examples of active citizenship, to view this younger generation as marking the end of the yoof apathy associated with Thatcher’s children, but they are kidding themselves as to what the protests are actually about. This isn’t a newfound passion for politics, but a cheeky two fingers to everything. And anybody who thinks that young people should be taken seriously should be prepared to argue politics with them, rather than delivering a patronising pat on the back.

A common claim is that young people are always, generally, anti-war. Really? Children might well be the most frightened about world events; but they are also, notoriously, the most bloodthirsty about other things. And they weren’t anti-war in 1991, or during the military campaigns against Somalia, Serbia, Kosovo or, more recently, Afghanistan.

For many of the children on Thursday’s London protest, this was their first demo: the question ‘Did you protest against the bombing of Afghanistan?’ drew a blank look, followed by a hasty ‘But that wasn’t right either!’. Whatever it is that has sent young people on the anti-warpath this week, it is not some kind of historical predisposition to opposing war.

That’s not to say that the kids protesting now are kidding themselves – many of them are no doubt genuinely concerned about this war on Iraq, and motivated by a desire to do something about it. But these concerns and actions do not come from their own sudden interest in world affairs, or even anger at the war.

At 3pm, Westminster on Thursday was more like a carnival than a protest – sun-kissed kids sitting quietly in the road, surrounded by friendly-faced coppers, with few chants or shouts and the odd cheer when three boys pulled their trousers down to show ‘NO WAR’ sketched across their buttocks, and when somebody in a George Bush mask waved an anti-war placard. ‘It’s brilliant!’ said one girl. ‘It’s really nice!’ said another. ‘There’s such a positive attitude!’ said another. All in all, a great day out – just like adult protesters have characterised every other march or rally in the run-up to this war.

As we have discussed before on spiked, the current anti-war movement has tapped into a general sense of mistrust, alienation and dissatisfaction in society (see A march built on mistrust and fear, by Mick Hume). Every frustration that people feel with politics and modern life has attached itself to the anti-war cause; and the outcome of this has been to fuel yet more cynicism. That’s why the defining slogan of this movement is not about Iraq, war or something specific, but is the ubiquitous cry of the generally disenchanted, ‘Not in my name’ (see Nameless, blameless, shameless, by Jennie Bristow).

In all of this, the old rules about political debate and activity no longer apply. Forget leaflets, organised marches, structured argument – the favoured tactics of the anti-war movement involve individual tantrums. So office workers are encouraged to walk out for 10 minutes, and schoolchildren incited to bunk off school.

It’s all easy, non-threatening, lowest-common-denominator stuff – God forbid you’d ask kids to miss the evening’s TV or give up a Saturday! Far more popular to feed off their general sense of adolescent boredom, frustration and angst, and give it all the positive gloss of an anti-war protest. And then, the anti-war movement hides behind schoolchildren, using them as a kind of human shield against the need to take a lead themselves.

One of the most disturbing aspects of Thursday’s London schoolkids’ protest was the noticeable absence of grown-ups. Apart from the odd teacher and the mass of policemen, you got the distinct impression that the anti-war movement had left the daytime protest to the children alone. There were plenty of Socialist Worker placards, of the most anodyne type (saying simply, ‘Stop the war’, in several different languages); and quite a few of the uber-anodyne ‘Not in my name’ placards produced by the Stop the War Coalition.

But where were the adults, to lead the protest, to talk to the kids, to make something out of this much-hyped day of youthful rebellion? Nowhere to be seen. It is as though, having encouraged children to make the anti-war cause their own, adults are terrified of taking responsibility for it, or worried about scaring the children away by trying to pull things together. So they simply vacate the space, and the kids rush in – knowing not what to do when they get there. Talk about the cowardice of the anti-war movement.

If the anti-war movement’s attitude to protest is pathetic, the authorities’ inability to hold the line is just as bad. Schoolchildren are not stupid – having been force-fed government guff about citizenship, volunteering and the importance of being involved in things, how easy is it for them to walk out of school on a protest against war and say, ‘See? This is what you wanted!’. And the schools can say nothing back. All they can do is bleat about truancy and health and safety, and try to coax the children into a more organised rebellion. The effect, of course, is counter-productive.

Most of the children who I spoke to on Thursday talked excitedly about how they had defied draconian measures taken by their school to prevent them from attending the protest. ‘They locked the gates!’ said one. ‘They’ve got teachers standing in all the exits!’ said another. ‘We’ve been threatened with exclusion if we came here today!’ was a common cry. All of this overreaction has boosted the children’s already-exaggerated sense of the importance of skiving off school, and made the schools look like spineless bureaucrats. Which, in this context, they are.

Few schools seem to have argued with their pupils about the anti-war movement’s politics – indeed, many have bent over backwards to say how proud they are of the pupils’ anti-war stance. The only justification they have given for preventing them from attending the protests is based on health and safety grounds – that schools have a duty of care towards pupils during the daytime, and therefore cannot allow them outside of the building. How is that supposed to convince a morally righteous teenager that they should stay in class instead?

Some schools have tried to skirt the responsibility issue by demanding that pupils bring written permission from their parents to attend the protests. On Thursday, one girl had done this – ‘They’re really strict at my school’, she explained self-consciously. Others shot back with ‘I haven’t got written permission, but my mum knows I’m here and she’s fine about it!’ Schools can talk up the threat of suspension and expulsion, but they’ll find themselves in a very big mess with the parents if they try to carry it through. The kids know that – as I said, they’re not stupid.

So you have the bizarre spectacle of some schools finishing early to allow their pupils to protest in their own time; and other schools reaching compromises with the organisers of protests, so that younger pupils can hold sit-ins in the assembly hall while the sixth-formers do die-ins out on the town. It’s all very safe, and given the stamp of official approval. And so little respect are young people given that, still, nobody even argues with them about the war.

According to BBC news, Devonport High School for Girls in Plymouth has forbidden children from leaving lessons, saying that pupils get the chance to air their opinions in citizenship lessons. This idea was greeted with universal derision by the children on Thursday’s London protest. ‘Our citizenship classes are a pile of crap’, said Kate, 16. ‘They say, look, this is this charity, and that’s all. They don’t think we can discuss the big issues.’ ‘I find it quite offensive’, she added. ‘We don’t get citizenship classes!’ chorused Siobhan, Antinisha and Makaila. ‘We only get PSHE [Personal, Social and Health Education] – about drugs, and stuff.’

‘At school, we’re told to stop being so political’, said a 15-year-old whose previous experience of getting into trouble at school resulted from wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ badge. She then turned on the New Labour regime. ‘This is supposed to be a democracy! How can it be a democracy if all these people disagree with them!’ She gestured to the other protesters – a couple of hundred 12- to 16-year-olds sitting peacefully in the sun – and I thought, well. If the government is going to talk about children’s rights, direct democracy, active citizenship and the importance of youth, it has only itself to blame when the kids take it all literally.

It is a testament to the low horizons and self-delusion of the anti-war movement that it is feeding off the energy of a teenage tantrum, and celebrating that as the birth of a political conscience. And it is a testament to the craven nature of citizenship education that it has spawned a generation of children who think that political engagement means giving a well-behaved ‘fuck you’ to everything.

Read on:

Craze or protest?, by Helen Groom

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

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Topics World


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