Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Of Culture and Anarchy: The Student Protests Were Not an Aberration but Part of Britain's Rich History of Public Protest and Direct Action. More Is to Come

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Of Culture and Anarchy: The Student Protests Were Not an Aberration but Part of Britain's Rich History of Public Protest and Direct Action. More Is to Come

Article excerpt

"Drum and bass is playing and the beer is open." That was how the Sky News presenter Kay Burley ended a report on the student protests of 10 November, which culminated in the occupation of Tory HQ on Millbank in central London. The affected horror and banal sensationalism of her words encapsulate the mainstream media's reaction to the day's events.

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The next morning, almost every national newspaper published an identical photograph of a masked man kicking at one of the plate glass windows that lined the ground floor of the building. (A wider crop of the same picture, circulated online several days later, showed the man surrounded by a throng of photographers.) How could a protest consisting of the "sons and daughters of Middle England", as one BBC reporter put it, be hijacked by "anarchists"?

The truth is that the protest was not hijacked. The occupation was a spontaneous display of the anger shared by many of the 52,000 people who had turned up to march that morning. Most of the several hundred teenagers and twentysomethings who streamed into the foyer and on to the roof of 30 Millbank were not hardened subversives. They showed themselves capable of distinguishing between minor property damage and violence directed at people, rounding on the idiot who threw a fire extinguisher from the roof, with boos and chants of "stop throwing shit".

What's more, the breakaway protesters had a clear, coherent political message. As one told a Guardian journalist at the scene: "We stand against the cuts, in solidarity with all the poor, elderly, disabled and working people affected. We are against all cuts and the marketisation of education. We are occupying the roof of Tory HQ to show we are against the Tory system of attacking the poor and helping the rich. This is only the beginning."

Those words could prove to be prophetic. In recent months, as talking heads have debated whether Britain could or would emulate the mass protests against spending cuts seen in continental Europe, we've been given the impression that social unrest is something that happens elsewhere. The prospect of its crossing the Channel has been invoked as if public protest were a foreign disease, picked up on summer holiday, perhaps, and brought home to wreak havoc in the winter months. Strikes, protests and riots are a speciality of the French and Greeks, so goes the suggestion, and not very British. That's not how we do things here.

Yet Britain, too, has its own submerged history of protest. In this country, as elsewhere, the great advances in democracy have been pushed forward by unrest; popular movements that the wealthy and their defenders in parliament or the press have sought to denigrate, dismiss and repress. "The thing that is frustrating," the historian Edward Vallance, author of A Radical History of Britain, tells me, "is the sense that mass demonstrations and riots are different from politics. They come from the same source. They are an extension of the kind of political developments that we think are part of politics--for example political parties, holding elections and electioneering."

Rise like lions

Vallance's point is well illustrated by the long struggle for votes of the 19th and 20th centuries. At St Peter's Field in Manchester in 1819, a peaceful crowd numbering well over 60,000 assembled to see the radical politician Henry Hunt demand universal suffrage. Soldiers charged the crowd on horseback, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds. The Peterloo massacre, as it became known, inspired Shelley's poem "The Masque of Anarchy", with its exhortation to "Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number!".

It seemed as if his call had been heeded a decade later when, in 1831, after the House of Lords voted against the Reform Bill, British cities erupted in violence. Nottingham Castle was burned to the ground and gangs of men armed with muskets took over the streets of Bristol. …

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