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Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Revolution begins (in which I become involved with ‘rampaging’ student ‘protesters’ ‘fighting running battles with the police’ throughout central London … apparently)

I went to the demonstration against the government’s education cuts in London yesterday. It was very well attended. The organisers had expected 24,000 people but in the end claimed that 45,000 came, with other estimates topping 50,000. From where I was it was impossible to judge (fill in a comment here about the difficulties of estimating the size of early medieval armies…) though I would hazard a guess that it was closer to the latter figure than the former. Who knows? Anyway, after a trio of lacklustre speeches from representatives of the organising bodies (believe me, I could have done better myself) we were off, slowly moving down Whitehall past the Houses of Parliament (timed to coincide with Prime Minister’s Questions) and to Millbank. I think it took our bit of the march about an hour and a half to complete the route, which ought to give an idea of the numbers present, and we were very far from being at the back; people were still coming in large numbers all the way along the route as we walked back to central London to get something to eat. So it was good to see such a huge turn-out but, being the disillusioned type, I felt there were nevertheless grounds for concern. One (obviously) was that it is disheartening if not unexpected that students only get politicised and active when it is a matter of their own pockets (if our students are anything to go by, I imagine that a fair number of them voted for this government; indeed I quipped that the 'Poppleton' student contingent was probably there to protest that the proposed fees were far too low…). Disappointing, but I suspect it was ever thus, to some degree at least.

Amplifying this point and underlining my general unease, was the fact that – overwhelmingly – the student placards were concerned only with the fees issue. One at least made a demand for ‘value for money’ (I wager groans from 90% of any HE teachers reading this)! But the fees issue is only a symptom, not the cause. Successive governments (Labour as well as Conservative) have cut back on the funding of higher education and focused what government money there is on satisfying the perceived demands of ‘business’, something that utterly misunderstands the nature of ‘education’ as opposed to ‘training’. This, incidentally, is not a complaint limited to arts and humanities students; the ‘hard sciences’ were amongst the most vocal in protesting against the imposition of Mandelson’s ‘Impact’ agenda (indeed the official response from my own professional body, the Royal Historical Society, was so pathetic and lily-livered that I nearly resigned my fellowship in protest). So much the worse in a profoundly anti-intellectual culture, but the cuts threatened by Cameron and co. will so slash university funding that the universities will have no option but to raise fees, or else cut jobs and departments (they had already started this after the last Labour government’s cuts, and it’ll hardly get any better now). The focus on the placards suggested to me, though, that as long as fees are not raised (or are cut) the student body will be happy enough. The response will inevitably be more ‘mass-delivery’ teaching (i.e. lots of lectures) from fewer staff, but then my suspicion (alluded to in a previous post) is that, provided they get their increased ‘contact hours’ (students have a *very* poor understanding of this issue) telling them what to write for their exam, they’ll be happy enough. Maybe I’m wrong. I very much hope that I am. The chants didn’t always suggest a particularly tight focus on important matters but anyway, in the jargon of British journalism, ‘a carnival atmosphere prevailed’. I’d have liked a bit more anger, to be honest. No middle class revolution, this. Shame.

But, no. Apparently I was mistaken. On the Tube on the way home, having spent the rest of the afternoon in the middle of London, in an area encompassed by Victoria, Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road, I read The Evening Standard (latterly given away free, and so now changing hands at a price only marginally exceeding its value) and was struck by the coverage of the event. ‘STUDENT SIEGE’ shrieked the front page, which described how thousands of student ‘protesters’ (nothing so becomes a demonstrator as being called a protester) had ‘brought central London to a halt’ by ‘fighting running battles with the police’. Having spent all afternoon in central London this came as a bit of a surprise, I have to admit, as the only time I had been brought to a halt was by the usual slow-moving crowds of shoppers on Oxford Street. I certainly hadn’t seen or heard any sign of the alleged ‘running battles’, although clearly there were angry confrontations – the Standard had pictures after all – and clearly some students had broken into a building containing conservative offices on Millbank.

A look at various editions of the Standard was interesting. The earliest version simply had a picture of three young female students with placards (the sort of thing that Private Eye would satirise along the lines of ‘Journalists fear education cuts will reduce the number of fruity* female students they can photograph’ [* the word the Eye always uses]), a later version went along the lines of peaceful protest hi-hacked at the end, before the ‘all hell breaks loose’ version I saw.

Because I know (vaguely) one of its co-authors (a former York student, as it happens), today I read this piece in the Telegraph:
(Read the comments if you want to peer into the void, and see just how dim the British public [or Telegraph-readers at any rate*] is; note in particular the visceral islamophobia of the second comment.
* How did the old joke go?  The Times is read by the people who run the country; the Telegraph is read by the people who think they run the country; the Guardian is read by the people who ought to run the country; the Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; and the Sun is read by people who don't know who runs the country and don't care either, just as long as she's got big tits.)

Now, all this puzzles me further, because I reached the end of the march at 2.00, and then walked most of the way back down Millbank and didn’t see any of this mayhem, though I did see Police vans heading off somewhere with sirens going. Yet apparently, to read this piece, one could be forgiven for getting the impression (as the commenters clearly have) that the capital had been in the grip of anarchist outrage for half an hour by this point. Indeed I have spent most of today in baffled consideration of the print media’s coverage. What one notices very quickly is the repetition of the same pictures, none of which seems to show a huge crowd of ‘anars’ storming the bastions of English democracy. Look closely, and you will see the same few people, often doing the same thing but photographed from different angles. Look closely and you’ll see a lot of people standing about in anything but aggressive posture. Look closely and you’ll see a lot of police looking on, not doing very much, clearly not needing to. There are some shots of physical confrontations between some policemen and some ‘hard-core’ demonstrators. No one familiar with the media coverage of the Miners’ Strike can look at a photograph of a protestor and a policeman shouting at each other and blithely assume that it was the protestor who started the shouting (which isn’t to say it was necessarily the policeman either, of course).

Baroness Warsi: Not defenestrated
by an angry mob
One estimate places the trouble makers at 2,000. Maybe that’s right. I don’t know. I have not thus far seen any great reason to trust the coverage by the Great British press. Whatever, it was clearly too many for the police in attendance, who had been a pretty light-touch presence for the most part, and who didn’t feel a heavy-handed response was appropriate. Interesting in itself. The total ‘butcher’s bill’ seems to have been 40 arrests, which hardly suggests a repetition of Paris ’68 or the storming of the Bastille. Yet this element of the day's events has dominated the coverage.  Assuming the press figures are correct, 1/26 of the demonstrators (that’s fewer than 4%) stormed the building containing Tory offices, and a small percentage of this number (look at the photos) smashed the place up (not Tory offices apparently, and nor, fortunately as I’m sure we all agree, was Baroness Warsi, who was on the premises, defenestrated by an angry mob, which naturally is a tremendous relief).

This was not A Good Thing. I’m not going to condone it; the only elements I will condemn are those which caused or threatened harm to actual people  (e.g. the fire extinguisher incident). Tactically, it played – as you can see – straight into the hands of the right-wing press who were thus able to conceal the real point completely. Tactically it was a disaster. Morally, some elements were stupid at least and did as much (if not more) physical damage to the fellow protesters than it did to the police (not that the Police had any business being targeted either). Some may have been the usual suspects, the ‘professional troublemakers’. (Where do you get a job as a professional troublemaker? Where are the positions vacant advertised? And what do you earn?) But who knows? If there were some students angry enough to do this – mistaken, misdirected and to be condemned though it was – then someone really ought to listen. The coverage, though, says little or nothing about the 96% of the march that passed off peacefully and is able to take reasonable points and demands and make them into the ravings of extremists. The protest began peacefully; 96% of it ended peacefully too.

You can probably guess where I am going with this. Yes, it is – yet again – the value of a historical education. The press coverage has taken an unpleasant and reprehensible incident and blown it quite out of proportion. You only need to look at the comments on the Telegraph article to see how people have uncritically leapt straight on the bandwagon, accepting it as all the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and stirred in their own personal bigotry. The historian’s training makes her question everything she is told, look closer at the evidence, find other sources, and weigh things up without being too carried away with the rhetoric of autopsy (‘I know; I was there’). I was there, and saw and heard nothing other than the vans leaving the scene; my Facebook-friend Heidi was there and saw people getting glass thrown in their faces and concrete being slung willy-nilly into the crowd; I have no reason to suppose that she’s making it up.  Neither of us has the whole picture. I would say that my experience (I was on Millbank at exactly this time) shows that the extent or scale of the trouble has been overplayed; Heidi’s shows very clearly how unpleasant the business could be at the eye of the storm, and that one can’t just say that nothing happened. The question you have to ask is whether a few dozen idiots behaving dangerously in a courtyard outweighs 50,000 people of all sorts of origins (I saw a Wadham College banner and I saw banners from the post-’92 institutions; there were mature students from Birkbeck too, as well as students of conventional age; artists and scientists) taking to the streets to say that what the government is doing is mistaken and wrong, or (better) balancing the two sides to the event. Which is the headline event? I’d say it was the second element not the first. Why has the press chosen the other option? You decide… Either way, this is the sort of question the historian always has to ask. Not just is this bastard lying to me but ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me’ (the latter element of this at least is attributed to Louis Philip Heren [1909–1995]).

What worries me is essentially what I have said before, that far too many history students don’t want to be taught the value of critical scrutiny of evidence; like the commenters on the Telegraph piece, they just want to be told what is what and what to think. How are they to respond to this sort of issue?  With this attitude among a largely complacent de-politicised electorate, who needs repression!

So, if I go back to Schama in Tuesday’s Guardian, what does it matter what bits of History you study at school, as long as they teach you the arts of critical thinking and reflexion, which I would say are what history is about. In evaluating the information, misinformation or imbalanced information about yesterday’s events, does it do you any more good to have studied Henry VIII or Hitler, or Alfred the Great or the Hittites, as long as you know how to assess information critically, and try and see that there might be more than one point of view?

Anyway, enough of this bourgeois chatter. Pass the Molotov Cocktails, Tarquin; it’s fuckin’ kickin’ off.