“Don’t believe the hype”
~ flava flav, public enemy no. 1, 1989
“Fever pitch had been reached in scenes that echoed the militant tendencies of UK students and lecturers today in what could only be described as a bloodbath outside Conservative party headquarters. Millions of students hauled down statues, ripped up paving slabs, hurled abuse and fired desert eagles, Glocks and Berettas at passersby.
After an excruciating display of public torture, the limbs of 16 Tory MP’s were strewn about the streets outside Millbank, their shrieks echoing off rapidly crumbling brickwork. Half the building had sunk into the Thames, the other half being head butted to smithereens by GCSE students as the President of NUS brandished an AK47 firing salvo after salvo into the air whilst screaming for blood atop his personalised tank ‘C0MR4DE AARON’ also known as ‘lil’ porter’.
Members of the national executive were seen to be eating the remains of the Tory MP’s, simplistically, brutally believing that they would assimilate their souls and thus the power of Government. An undergraduate studying drama & sociology (with philosophy) punted a rattle out of a screaming toddlers hand and released a chilling, soulless cackle; eyes wide with paroxysms of ecstasy and unattended spittle rolling down her chin. In other news…”
Or what actually happened is a group of children, students, lecturers, parents and concerned individuals met up and patiently muddled through sunny London struggling to come up with a decent chant to keep the variety up aside from “no if’s, no buts, no education cuts”.
This was of course, the march against top-up fee increase and cuts to University funding on Wednesday November the 10th 2010. The money shot photo seen on the front page of both the Times and the Guardian (no doubt earning the paps a crust), seemed very different when I stood metres away amongst bemused students who shrugged off the mutiny at Millbank and carried on about their day.
I wonder how so many photographers managed to capture the first instances of vandalism on the building – weren’t they supposed to be down the road? Interesting that the flares that turn up at every demo seem to help perfectly illuminate a snap-shot that turns up on nine paper front pages the next day. Note the fact this solo rioter is surrounded by paps and everyone else cordoned off.
Having patiently waited for 45 minutes past the official start time (standard NUS event) we got under-way and cheerfully plodded towards our destination; a rally point with a gigantic screen to display messages of hope, the speeches of event organisers and leaders from both the NUS and UCU. A photograph opportunity, press coverage and publication of the content of the speeches were inevitably the goal, as well as creating a peaceful public spectacle and representation of our displeasure at the idea of cuts combined with increased fees for higher education.
The route to the rally point had more NUS/UCU stewards on it than police, and outside of Millbank you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was the least politically significant building in our path. I personally expected it to be a fortress, not that leaving your front door wide open in central London is an invitation for crime or anything… oh.
Sigh. I guess I missed the memo stating we were all hell-bent on biblical destruction. Perhaps I should’ve checked twitter more often. However the media and politicians couldn’t give a flying Archibald about the message we tried to put across on Wednesday.
It’s the same old story, they complain about elected officers not being representative if they aren’t controversial enough to up their sales figures or pander to their ethics, but when someone misbehaves all of a sudden they’re regarded as “student leaders”. This is not investigative journalism at its finest – these are the tactics of sloppy and sales-hungry hacks and politicians looking to devalue critics that make them nervous for coming close to the mark.
Distorted views and would-be Paxmans
The trouble I have is that it seems that the picture being painted is that of stupidity and violence encouraged by student leaders as yet again the image of students is derived from a bastardised combination of Withnail and I, the young ones and the Cuban revolution. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I would hope everyone commenting on it now has noticed that this is not the first time the NUS has raised the issue of top-up fees, or worked on alternatives – not just scrapping them. Looking at the reactions to Wednesday’s demo it would seem the amount of people with an “expert” opinion on the “appalling scenes” seem to be similar in type to the sheer volume of professional aficionados that appear spontaneously during any international sporting competition. Similar in type in that they’re crammed full of second hand opinions and having seen a blur of tabloid front pages whizz past their upturned faces as a light-bulb pings above their head. Clichés of indignation that will surely win them a knowing grunt of approval are rolled out: “F*ckin students… GERRA JOB”… “YER!”. Similar to the experts who were trumped by an octopus during the world cup, these folk are often completely out of their depth.
Wimbledon, the world cup, and now the campaigning methodology and ideological shifting sands of national student politics seem to be able to be summarised by thrilling headlines such as “Fees protests spiral out of control”. The vast majority were I’m glad to say, spiral free and were in the midst of watching University of the arts adaptation of “can’t touch this” (can’t cut this) before the president of NUS made a speech, totally oblivious to a tiny proportion of people running into an unguarded lobby.
The rabid throng
As the demonstration got under-way I looked to my left to see a girl in D&G shades guzzling down an oasis summer fruits and digging around in her purse for a tuna baguette – she was on her lunch break from her part time job and was a local student. Earlier in the day I’d met a cheerful chap who had made his placard saying in huge lettering: “Where’s my shoe?” with “no to cuts” in a tiny font at the bottom, he wanted things to remain light-hearted, but he was there all the same to pitch in. Another man who was elated to see so many people turn up was there with a placard saying “What about my grand-son?”, explaining to my friend and I that he hadn’t been particularly politically involved over his 60 or so years, but the opportunities for his grand-son were disappearing at such a rate he felt it was his “moral duty” to attend.
This was a peaceful protest, with peaceful aims, and peaceful participants. This was not the hurricane of violence reported by the media; it was the gust of unrest that slipped past the main throng.
Not the first time we’ve thought about fees
Over the preceding years, national demonstrations have been talked down and an era of lobbying, round the table negotiation and respectful disagreement had been embarked on in earnest in attempt to “play the game”, to try and get answers from our political peers in the most efficient manner. When we are doing anything but protest we are criticised by the press, for what they see as capitulating to Whitehall. Lobbies of Parliament, conferences with VC’s, keynote speeches to University associations and party conferences – all have been utilised – though the coverage of Wednesday would make you believe we’ve all been sat in a scout hut plotting the destruction of modern society, one window at a time.
The point is, contemporary student campaigning and lobbying methods have been tried from so many different angles it would make your head spin. Be under no illusion, there are members of the student movement who’d like nothing more than to occupy Parliament or scream at the Conservatives until they asphyxiated themselves on their own vitriol. Rules get flexed and indeed broken, but we don’t blame the entirety of public transport users when chewing gum is found on the underside of a bus seat. However unlike the chuddy chiselers, the media and politicians (all who loved a bit of occupation in their hay-day) are more than happy to hoist up students when under 0.005% of a peaceful march get involved with so-called violence as an example of utter depravity. This is quite obviously what the politicians of today are desperate to find, a publicity loophole; a get-out-of-jail free card so that they don’t have to answer for the crap they’re pulling with the University system.
Today sees the Times talking more about Universities, this time focussing on the vast amount of students unable to get into University for not getting A*’s and of course, the lad with the fire hydrant who managed to become a student leader without standing for a single election.
Tucked away in the corner of page 8 is a little piece stating that the Institute of Fiscal Studies think the fees system proposed will actually cost the tax-payer more, and will in fact be detrimental to students. When we showed the IFS the blueprint for a model of education that NUS came up with they had no such issues. The press however, lampooned our model and called us sell-outs, after of course waiting for the opinion of whoever was in control of the purse strings in the brief coverage they gave us.
The NUS and those who support them will keep trying however, and hopefully their professionalism will rub off on the arbiters of our negotiations; we shall see. For now it’s very obvious that we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.