I was standing in front of the House of Commons with my 17-year-old daughter Stevie just before the Commons vote on the proposal to increase university tuition fees threefold was announced on 9 December 2010. She turned to me and said: ‘It’s so strange there are men just over there in Parliament right now deciding my future.’ For her I think being there that night and sensing the atmosphere sour in the air after the vote was, well . . . an education! We watched on an iPhone over the shoulder of a young man as the votes were announced. Seeing the riot police fully engaged and state power laid bare was a flashback to the 1980s for me and for her a flash-forward. The consequences will be severe for an entire generation.
My head of department commented in a staff meeting earlier the previous week that ‘we are presiding over our own privatization’. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition will end the public funding of university teaching with the result that tuition fees will double or even treble. Before the demonstration had even started to disperse the police made pronouncements about ‘outside troublemakers’ but all that was so out of step with the anger and frustration of the crowd. Recently they have supplanted this ‘troublemakers’ and ‘agitators’ line with crocodile tears about middle-class students from ‘respectable families’ who have ruined their futures through being involved in violence and attacks on property.
There were lots of groups of young people from Lewisham, south London and Tower Hamlets, east London, standing close by. It seemed so clear that the anger crossed the lines of class and colour. I’m not sure how much that has been noted elsewhere. We got away from the police’s ‘kettling’ tactics – that is, confining demonstrators in restricted areas – and the lines of riot police with batons and shields. We bumped into a sociology graduate just behind the Cenotaph. He’d had a conversation in the middle of a kettle with one of the riot police. The officer complained: ‘Don’t you think we have kids too?’ To which the young sociologist said: ‘Why don’t you put down your shield and let us out then?’
We talked about it. Of course, the officer’s individual opinions are an irrelevance. He is choreographed and marshalled by power to hold the rest of us in place, violently reminding anyone who oversteps with a flick, or a full clout, of the baton. There were certainly moments of carnivalesque in the midst of it all, but the thing that has come up time and time again from people I spoke to afterward is the sense of fear and being terrified. The police claim constantly that their actions were reasonable and were made in the name of defending the streets of London – echoing power’s cri du cœur ‘society must be defended’.