Could a fresh generation of activists cause the government unprecedented strife? Plus: exclusive interview with Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officersby Ed Howker / January 26, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Click here for Prospect’s exclusive interview with Hugh Orde, President of the Association of Chief Police Officers
For six undergraduates at the University of Kent, Christmas arrived through the window. They were the final cadre of those student protesters who brought chaos to the streets of London in 2010, and their occupation of a campus administration building lasted until 5th January.
They holed up for 30 days in Kent’s Senate building, relying on a supply of food gifts from students and lecturers, passed through ground-floor windows because security guards prevented anyone from entering. On Christmas Day a roast chicken, spuds and cranberry sauce were delivered. The students fashioned their own crackers from loo roll.
Alex Stevenson, a 20-year-old politics student, is eloquent in his criticism of the coalition’s decision to raise tuition fees and to scrap public funding for universities and the education maintenance allowance which subsidised poor students. On the day before the sit-in ended, Stevenson was defiant: “This is just the beginning,” he said. “This is the year of protest.”
He may be right. Despite Britain’s strong culture of parliamentary democracy, much of its political history—even just in the last 40 years—has been decided on the streets or through industrial action. Governments have not often given in directly to street demonstrations. But the downfall of several can be linked to mass protests—the union-led resistance to Ted Heath in 1974, or to James Callaghan in 1979, or the poll tax riots that damaged Margaret Thatcher’s authority in 1990 (see “Four Decades of British Protest, below). The labour movement is weaker today. The question now is whether new forms of protest, harnessing the internet, can become a significant source of pressure on the government, perhaps by joining forces with the unions.
As 2011 begins, bands of protesters from all walks of life are lining up to take their fights to the government. Like the Kent students who refused to go home after the Commons voted to increase fees, these groups are more strident and dedicated than Britain has seen for years. Their objectives vary dramatically, but they all favour direct approaches: strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins and high-street disruption.