Monday, 13 December 2010

We're All Undesirables Now

The Rebirth of Mass Discontent

As the year draws to a close David Cameron and Nick Clegg must be hoping 2011 will bring a return of the optimism they shared on that spring morning in the Downing Street garden when this unlikely political double act made its first public appearance. Given the events of recent weeks it's a wish that's unlikely to be granted. No-one condones the violence, either from demonstrators or police, that accompanied last Thursday's tuition fee vote but, along with the result, it came as no surprise.

What has been rather more surprising is the radicalisation of a generation of young people since the coalition began its assault on our higher education system. Forget the sanctimonious talk about dreamers and  thugs  what we are witnessing is a fundamental shift in the relationship between a significant section of society and the state. After years of bemoaning the apathy of young voters we are suddenly faced with a movement that  even the Duchess of Cornwall can't ignore and it shows no signs of going away.

Prior to last week's events we had seen unrest on previous student demonstrations against the government's proposals. Then there was the anger directed towards Vodaphone and Top Shop who are allowed to withhold millions from the exchequer while we're told the cost of education is one the treasury can no longer afford. Up and down the country local protests have been organized and universities occupied. Even the Turner Prize ceremony was disrupted by a 'teach-in' at Tate Britain following which the winner, Susan Philipsz, expressed  her commitment to free education.

As this  mass discontent begins to make itself felt commentators have sought to make sense of it all. In the Sentinel our local MPs have been asked for their thoughts while columnist Mick Temple has devoted a page to the subject. Elsewhere comparisons have been made with the anti poll tax movement that signalled the demise of Margaret Thatcher while others have likened it to the student protests of May 1968 that rocked the French government. In the Guardian  Michael Chessum shares this analysis predicting that the current protest could easily turn into a mass anti-privatization movement. This remains to be seen.

The truth is this unexpected wave of activism has taken everyone by surprise and we can only guess where it might lead. One thing appears certain though,  the mood is unlikely to change any time soon. The students have vowed to continue their protests and other flashpoints await. In January the VAT rises come into effect plunging millions into hardship. Benefits are being slashed not only for the unemployed and low paid but for middle class families too. Only last week it was reported that up to 1000 public libraries could close as councils seek to deal with new financial restrictions. Even the police who are expected to deal with any resulting public disorder are facing massive spending cuts.

If nothing else the past weeks have demonstrated  that the genie is out of the bottle and it's going to prove extremely difficult for the government to force the cap back on. One of the  slogans that decorated the streets in May 1968 was Beneath the Paving Stones the Beach. Right now it appears the beach is getting bigger and the danger facing Cameron and Clegg is that  the paving stones could still be flying in their direction this time next year. After all, as they never tire of reminding us, we're all in this together. Which might be interpreted,  to paraphrase another of those memorable slogans, as we're all undesirables now.

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