50,000 Students Revolt: A Sign of Much Greater Anger to Come in Neo-Con Britain

11.11.10

They came from all over the country, creating a 50,000-strong throng of students and University lecturers that filled Whitehall. Peaceful but vocal, the protestors were armed only with banners and placards, but at times the noise, as they chanted their opposition to the government’s planned £2.9 bn cut in university funding, was deafening.

I attended the demo for about an hour and a half, and was heartened that so many had turned up. To be frank, every single student in the country should have been there, or they might as well have had ministers turning up at their door asking them to agree that, from today, they will start paying up to £9,000 a year in fees — as opposed to the current rate of £3,290.

There was anger too, as some protestors smashed up Tory HQ on Millbank, while others took to the roof of the building. Some were students, others were not, but predictably, the violence overshadowed the main events of the day in the majority of media reports, and in much of the hand-wringing commentary today. In truth, however, both the massive peaceful demo and the considerably smaller group of violent protestors were indicative of much more unrest to come — and for good reason.

On university education, as on welfare, the coalition government is mounting nothing less than a full-scale assault on the State and on fundamental notions of how British society operates. Critics — either the usual suspects whining about students’ privileges, or the new breed of middle class hypocrites ignoring the fact that their own university educations were subsidized — seem content to accept that university education is not something that contributes to the good of society as a whole, and also to accept, without a murmur, that as a result the axemen of Downing Street should be allowed to impose the most swingeing cuts imaginable.

The government’s comprehensive spending review indicated that the cuts will amount to 40 percent, but once the ring-fenced fields of science, technology, engineering and maths are removed, the blunt truth is that arts, humanities and social science courses — and the infrastructure that supports them — are facing 100 percent cuts, transferring, overnight, the entire burden of university education from the State to the individual.

I find it enormously depressing that no one seems to be calling for moderation — asking, for example, for cuts to be imposed more gradually, and over a longer period of time. As it stands, this is a horribly experimental project, and there is a very real fear that axing the entire budget for arts, humanities and social sciences and shifting the burden onto students will lead to the closure of numerous departments and entire institutions with long and influential histories — think of art colleges and drama schools, for example, or departments of literature and foreign languages — if enough young people decide that debts of £30,000 and above are simply not acceptable.

Also ignored in all this troubling meanness of spirit is any recognition that arts and humanities courses contribute enormously to the crucial role that the creative industries play in the modern British economy, and which is reflected in the huge number of self-employed creative people — in the arts, crafts, and writing, for example — who enrich society while not necessarily enriching themselves, and who would otherwise add to the growing numbers of the unemployed, given that there are currently 2.45 million unemployed people, and just 459,000 available jobs. Anyone thinking coherently about society as a whole might realize that an investment in university education as a whole might actually be contributing to the creation of self-starters, capable of independent thought and analysis, whose abilities might be essential to growth and employment, but cannot necessarily be measured by salary, or by their place in the corporate pecking order.

And yet, this absurd gamble — and this failure to value university education as something that is useful for society as a whole — is being embraced by people who should know better, who have been caught up in the government’s rhetoric about the necessity for cuts to be as deep and as swift as possible. Gleefully clutching scalpels, these same people seem incapable of thinking that the government may be operating for ideological reasons, attacking the unemployed, the working poor and even the middle classes (everyone, it seems, except the upper middle class, the rich and the super-rich) as part of an arrogant and essentially neo-con attempt to reshape the UK as a country that is as harsh and pitiless — and as consumed by greed — as the United States.

Are these cheerleaders for draconian cuts not aware of the mind-boggling amount of tax evasion and tax avoidance that takes place in this country, through corporations and wealthy individuals, which could cover most of the proposed cuts? And have they forgotten that the City is directly responsible for much of the deficit, from the economic meltdown of 2008 to the bank bailouts, the loss of tax revenue and the increase in welfare spending that occurred as a result, but is being asked to contribute nothing to the economy? Although an annual levy of £2.5 bn has been announced, this will almost all be given back through the generous cut in Corporation Tax that the government wasted no time in providing to its chums in the Square Mile.

As this is an example of what David Cameron and George Osborne and Nick Clegg are hiding when they talk about being “fair,” and about the necessity for all of us to tighten our belts, it is no wonder that yesterday’s massive peaceful protest is a sign of things to come, or that yesterday’s violence — and the cries of “Tory scum!” and newly-coined insults for the Liberal Democrats that accompanied it — are also here to stay.

What we needed at the General Election was a grown-up debate about Britain’s future. Instead, after all the major parties avoided discussing the economy, we got an incomprehensible coalition government, in which the major players — the Tories — have emerged as butchers, acting as though they had an electoral mandate for savage revolutionary change, and content to hack away not just at the poor but also at a significant swathe of their own less wealthy supporters, the Liberal Democrats have committed political suicide — unless enough of them revolt against the university cuts — and the people of Britain are dividing into two camps: the cruel, the complacent and the brainwashed on one side, and, on the other, those with empathy, a quaint belief in the common good, and an awareness that the destructive power of unfettered capitalism has yet to be seriously challenged.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

27 Responses

  1. Eddie Daughton says...

    Nice one Andy… I think the scariest thing is to watch people who i thought were sensible aware folk lining up on the side of those who think that all sick unemployed etc, are scroungers, and even (scariest of all) one of my best friends actually stated that “in many countries these students would be shot” and then got quite irate when i suggested that that was why i lived in UK because we have (had) a tolerant society, with freedom of speech and thought…
    Like i said, nice one… (+ by the way, thanks for Stonehenge celebration.. possibly one of the only books written that comes close to telling it like it was…)
    XX
    Eddie (also known as Golly also known (in the day ) as The Mgt (from free festival newsheets)

  2. Tweets that mention 50,000 Students Revolt: A Sign of Much Greater Anger to Come in Neo-Con Britain | Andy Worthington -- Topsy.com says...

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington, Andre Smith. Andre Smith said: RT @GuantanamoAndy: 50,000 Students Revolt: A Sign of Much Greater Anger 2 Come in Neo-Con Britain – A war cry against http://bit.ly/an4CFd [...]

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank, Eddie. Great to hear from you. Lovely appraisal of “Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion” and as for what’s happening now, well, we’re suddenly back in the 80s, aren’t we? Except that people are meaner.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are a few comments from Facebook:

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Yes, “Neo-Con Britain” — neo-lib economics rule the world. I had problems with universities in Australia that resemble Britain’s problems and all the developing countries have to adopt this lunatic form of unsustainable economics if they want any aid. This includes supposedly Communist countries like Laos. It is insane and misguided and not designed to give incentives where they are needed to provide the skilled workforce and the critical thinkers we need for the future.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Michael Bentley wrote:

    Brilliant article Andy — it says it all.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Ruth Gilburt wrote:

    Eloquent and informed, as ever, Andy x

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Willy, Michael and Ruth. Your support is much appreciated. I’m actually quite stressed by it all, and finding it difficult trying to keep up with Guantanamo and related issues while also providing what I hope is sane, compassionate and indignant commentary on the hijacking of my country by a bunch of very dangerous people indeed.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Tony Gosling wrote:

    After whirling round the developed world the IMF riots have finally come to London.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Lola Heavey wrote:

    As Naomi Klein has pointed in her book The Shock Doctrine, the Tories only have a limited amount of time in which they can destroy the British state.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    James Vaughn wrote:

    It is sad to see what worldwide corruption has done to our counties but good to see that there are still enough brave people to voice opposition to the corporate mass manipulators and quasi governmental kleptocracies.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Anne Marie Cherigny Aboutayab wrote:

    the students are the tomorrow world they are not prepare to accept everything. the Universities are the most dear in Europe

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    John Schwab wrote:

    I’ve been wondering when university students were going to start protesting. I feel like an old hat — I came from the Viet Nam era.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Ruth Blakeley wrote:

    Fantastic piece Andy, and as a lecturer it is wonderful to hear your support for those of us fighting to defend the work we do with many talented students opting for degrees in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. In my experience, such students go on to make incredibly important contributions to all sectors of society. This government, I fear, won’t appreciate what it has got in them until it’s gone.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, everyone, for keeping this topic alive. We have only just begun!
    Good to hear from you, Ruth, and I’m glad you appreciated my first attempt at articulating the worth of arts, humanities and social science degrees. I plan to do more on the proposed 100 percent cuts to these courses, as it hasn’t yet been adequately addressed, so feel free to email me to establish contacts to discuss further — and this call goes out to anyone directly affected by the complete annihilation of budgets for arts, humanities and social sciences.

  15. Chris Roberts says...

    Andy, this is a great piece, and begins to map out some of the undiscussed territory. Like Ruth, I am a lecturer in AHSS disciplines – Media and Cultural Studies – and the destruction of the sector is truly appalling, iniquitous, regressive and ideological. The thing that’s consistently misrepresented is that this is *only* about student tuition fees. On the morning of the march BBC News said: “1000′s of students are preparing to march against the proposed hike …in tuition fees” thus immediately framing it in terms of students being merely disaffected and dissatisfied ‘education consumers’. “Well look, these are times of economic hardship, how do you propose to fund universities?” Or worse, as Adrian Chiles suggested on “Daybreak” “Why should a bus driver fund your studies?”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apk3lSB95gc

    This discursive framing is intensely problematic. The regressive, awful, iniquitous policy is being represented as merely ‘fiscal’ as opposed to ideological. Gerald Pillay in the Times Higher Education supplement: “By funding certain university courses and not others, the government plans to steer students deliberately towards those disciplines that it perceives to be economically relevant to the country. Higher education would indelibly be equated with training for work….govt are effectively acting as social engineer and workforce planner.” We are struggling to assert this different narrative in the mainstream media.

    To quote Foucault – “It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours, is to criticise the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence …that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them” (Foucault, 1975) this is precisley our task. The continued representation of ‘cuts’ as “inevitable”; “necessary”; “unavoidable” is now such a dominant narrative needs to be challenged, it’s difficult but a fight we have to try and win.

    See here for another rousing piece: http://www.thelondongraduateschool.co.uk/thoughtpiece/what-is-to-be-done%E2%80%A6-after-the-storming-of-millbank/#

    And Stefan Collini in the LRB: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n21/stefan-collini/brownes-gamble

    The marvellous Stewart Lee here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDEZ2h41t0I

    Finally…my own attempts are on my blog: http://chr1sr0berts.wordpress.com

    We need to fight, but we also need to redraw the terms (discourse) of the debate.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Chris, for the encouraging response to my first attempt to reframe the terms of the debate, and for the links. There will be more to follow.

  17. The Cruelty and Stupidity of the Government’s Welfare Reforms « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] that its latest bonus pot would total £1.6bn.” In the context of his article, framed around the proposed demolition of university funding, he pointed out that this is “about a third of what the government currently spends each year on [...]

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Esther Angel wrote:

    Ha ha ha! Spotted the placard saying “who took the N out of CUT”!
    I would have thought that today’s protesting students are partly made up of the protesting school kids 7 years ago who defied being expelled from school for protesting against the “war on terror”.
    While Science and Technology have always suffered severe cuts, it’s very clear that the Neo-Cons of Britain (nice one, Andy!) want to cut all expression of freedom and liberal thinking. Out with those who want to express themselves in art or would want to bring about a better society by studying Humanities and Social Science as well as Human Rights and Psychology.
    If the ConDems win in bringing about their world according to Thatcher and Cameroon, it will be a much colder unfriendlier Britain without the skills we so desperately need.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Sod You wrote:

    more protests are to come, and riot police will be waiting next time.

  20. Battle for Britain: Fighting the Coalition Government’s Vile Ideology — and Praise for UK Uncut « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] and to scrap the Education Maintanance Allowance for sixth-formers from poorer backgrounds by taking to the streets in numbers not seen since the last Conservative government — with the exception of the protest [...]

  21. LA BATTAGLIA D’INGHILTERRA LOTTA CONTRO LA MISERIA IDEOLOGICA DELLA COALIZIONE GOVERNATIVA – LODE A UK UNCUT - says...

    [...] l’Education Maintenance Allowance per i liceali poveri all’ultimo anno di studi scendendo per le strade così numerosi come non si vedeva da quando governavano i conservatori, esclusa la manifestazione [...]

  22. UK: Warnings Of Future Crisis « « Eurasia Review Eurasia Review says...

    [...] of the things that are central to any notion of the common good — the NHS, the welfare state, our universities — privatized or otherwise broken. Forget the further impoverishment of the poor, the attacks on [...]

  23. On Anti-Cuts Protest In London, 500,000 Say No – OpEd « Eurasia Review says...

    [...] the entire burden of education out of the state’s hands, as I discussed in my articles, 50,000 Students Revolt: A Sign of Much Greater Anger to Come in Neo-Con Britain, Did You Miss This? 100 Percent Funding Cuts to Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Courses at UK [...]

  24. Battle For Britain: Government’s Idiocy On Increased University Tuition Fees Revealed – OpEd « Eurasia Review says...

    [...] of all ages — as 50,000 students and schoolchildren (as well as tutors and support staff) took to the streets of London in November to protest, surprising both the government and the [...]

  25. UK Student-Led Demo Against University Fees And Austerity Cuts - OpEd says...

    [...] a year since 50,000 students, lecturers, university staff, schoolchildren and concerned citizens marched through central London to protest against the Tory-led coalition government’s plans to triple university tuition fees, [...]

  26. UK Student-Led Demo Against University Fees And Austerity Cuts – OpEd | global university generation says...

    [...] a year since 50,000 students, lecturers, university staff, schoolchildren and concerned citizens marched through central London to protest against the Tory-led coalition government’s plans to triple university tuition fees, [...]

  27. The Year of Revolution: The “War on Tyranny” Replaces the “War on Terror” by Andy Worthington | Dandelion Salad says...

    […] been muted (with the exception of the students and schoolchildren who took to the streets last November and December), a widespread anger is just below the surface, and the rise of new protest groups — […]

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