Panic on the streets of London

Dave Ryan discusses the recent past and unsure future of students.

Last week, in an almost creepy parallel to recent events on Merion Row, University students in Britain marched en masse in London to protest almost draconian cuts in education by the Conservative/Lib Dem government. Much like that afternoon on Merion Row, the protest turned violent, as some marchers occupied the Millbank Building, headquarters of the British Conservative Party. Though the events of that day are not entirely similar, perhaps there is something to be learned from what happened for us.

The cuts they marched against were indeed worse: a near tripling in College tuition fees, from £3,290stg. to an incredible £9,000. On top of that, Cameron’s government proposes to cut University budgets by 40%. This from a government containing Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader who sought the abolition of fees before the general election. These cuts created a similar under-current of tremendous anger at the incumbent government that we experienced here in Ireland. Also, similarly to our own situation, it was believed by a number of groups that any legitimate means of communication with the government had been exhausted, so drastic measures needed to be taken. This, in retrospect, may not have been the greatest idea in the world, but much like in Ireland, the quote of Thomas Jefferson was taken too much to heart:

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

and so it was seen that in the face of an apparent reluctance to compromise from the Government, the Government needed to become aware of this anger.

I do not need to waste time describing in detail the events at Millbank Tower that afternoon, the images flooded our screens and our papers for the week: the hoodies, the flares, the flags, the screaming, the windows smashing. What needs to be discussed in earnest is the aftermath of these events, and the difference in how they were received between Britain and Ireland.

The immediate aftermath of the events on Merion Row (Read more about it in Juvenal’s article here) was the kind you would imagine if the rioters were the gangrenous limb of the USI. The media as a whole, and we include ourselves in that, universally slated the violence. As well it should have been, regardless of the instigators. But the responsibility we had in that situation as journalists we not just to send these rioters off for a lengthy stay in the Bold Corner. This violence, however unjust, however discrediting to the perpetrators, was born out of legitimate concern for the future of students, and for the future of our country. Media outlets had a stick to beat students with, and those on the fence had a reason to back away from the cause. This attack on their protest caused the Unions to break ranks and point the finger away toward the groups involved in the Merion Row debacle. The USI’s immediate reaction was not to get the opinions of those involved, nor to open channels of communication with them, instead they washed their hands of these students, many of whom are from USI-affiliated colleges. What was a chance for the USI to rationalise and explain how and why things got out of hand at the Department of Finance became a reason for the Union to amputate. The USI and its member Unions became strangled by their own inability to accept that these “extremists” were fighting on the same side, though not by the most savoury of means.

The violence on that day should indeed have been admonished. But as students we are stronger fighting back as a whole. Every group needs to identify that they have a common goal, and that dividing over the pursuit of that goal weakens our voice and our legitimacy. A very interesting article was published in The Guardian UK, following the events at Millbank Tower (see here for the article in full). Written by Nina Power, a senior philosophy lecturer at Roehampton University, it examines why these violent scenes occur, rather than immediately sweep them under the rug:

“It is hard to see the violence as simply the wilfulness of a small minority – it is a genuine expression of frustration against the few who seem determined to make the future a miserable, small-minded and debt-filled place for the many”

-Nina Power

The logic of the argument put forth in the article seems inescapable. As opposed to a bunch of left-wing yobs looking to smash sh*t up, it is the physical manifestation of the desperation that, if students do nothing in the face of these cuts, we may well see catastrophic damage done to our education system. The same rings true in Ireland. We are at a unique point in history, where students have become politically aware on a massive scale, and are willing to march for their beliefs, instead of drinking another beer and hoping for the best.

Of all the articles published in the wake of the Millbank Tower violence, perhaps the most interesting was written by Laurie Penny for the New Statesman (full article here). This much-lauded article, combining first hand witness account with broad reflection on the state, presents a template for the discussion Irish students must embark on.

“One can often take the temperature of a demonstration by the tone of the chanting. The cry that goes up most often at this protest is a thunderous, wordless roar, starting from the back of the crowd and reverberating up and down Whitehall. There are no words. It’s a shout of sorrow and celebration and solidarity and it slices through the chill winter air like a knife to the stomach of a trauma patient. Somehow, the pressure has been released and the rage of Europe’s young people is flowing free after a year, two years, ten years of poisonous capitulation.”

-Laurie Penny

The point of the events of Merion Row is no longer that untoward violence occurred, nor was it at the time. Regardless of what distractions we have chosen to favour, the question has remained constant: Are the short-term savings worth the long-term costs?

Regardless of which way you lean politically, it is, in my mind, a point of fact there are few better things to invest in than education. A skilled workforce is that heartbeat of an economy. Sure, you save money cutting education, but does crippling the next generation’s ability to learn really seem worth it? As one talkback on the New Statesman article put it:

“The students are the vanguard for change”

I know I want things to change.

-Dave Ryan, just search ‘The Student Observer’

Tell your friends!


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