Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Making the Possible impossible.


It’s nearly two years after the student protests shook the country, particularly the capital. This was a rare moment where the toy-box politics of the universities converged with the national politics of the time. For once the politics of the student body were a part of the politics of the body national. The hung result of the General Election had produced a coalition government formed by a political class that could not regroup in the midst of mass disillusionment with New Labour. Even after 13 years of Labour the Conservatives couldn’t forge a majority in Parliament and only succeeded in increasing their vote by 3% in 5 years. The indignity for David Cameron of standing in a bed factory to talk about ‘change’ wasn’t enough. The coalition deal proved that the progressive smorgasbord of the Liberal Democrats was a ploy of a party that had never expected to be in government. The promise of an end to tuition fees was quickly scrapped by Liberal Democrats who demonstrated that they are no better than yellow Tories.

The student protests that swept across the country in November 2010 were bigger than the student protests of 1968. It began with small gestures by activists. In one outing less than 30 people turned up at Lib Dem HQ shouting through loudhailers only to provoke the locals into shouting “This is a residential area!” out of their windows. The smirking police officers at the scene made for positive contrast to the officers who led a charge of horses on students at Parliament Square in cold December. Not to forget the officers who dragged Jody McIntyre from his wheelchair and put Alfie Meadows in hospital with brain damage. The schismatic burst of sectarianism came in the aftermath of the demonstration organised by the NUS. Over 50,000 students turned out to march past Parliament and listen to speeches by activists. Then the rage boiled over and Conservative Party HQ ended up being smashed up and occupied as the police kettled the crowd around the building. The dividing point for a great many opened up that night with the clash between Aaron Porter and Clare Solomon on Newsnight. There was an immediate collision on camera for the student movement.

The division is an old open wound between liberals and radicals over the politics of conviction and of responsibility. The Leninist acceptance of violence and its consequences at odds with the liberal call for a hero with a beautiful soul to save the day. This sunk to its lowest level in toy-box form, impotent posturing versus self-applauding passivity. The conservative response to the shattered glass of Millbank was in the same mode as Roger Scruton’s reaction to the events of ’68 in Paris: “I suddenly realized I was on the other side. What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans... That's when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.” Most students decided to push on, it was clear that there were serious gains to be made from a constructive unity to regroup after Millbank. In the end the proposals were passed through Parliament by a little more than 20 votes while there were 20,000 people outside protesting. It was befitting that the kettled students were led across the bridge, welcomed by the counter-terrorism unit before being let out in spurts – the possible had become impossible.

The fact that the student protests of 2010 were bigger than those of ’68 is really a testament to just how small Britain’s student movement was in 1968. Unlike the French we’re not so much haunted by the spirit of ’68 as trapped by the chaos of a passive existence. Too often it seems that the British love business as usual too much to confront the Establishment. Sometimes it’s even a problem for us to even engage with the problematic question, thus the paucity of the Anglo-Saxon mind in its aversion to theory and preference for practice above all. This is even the case with the Establishment as the Coalition has no theory to justify its cuts agenda only an appeal to pragmatism – the view is that if we cut our way through this deficit then we will hasten the return to boom times. Fortunately there are times when the desire for business as usual converges with the forces of progress that open up a space for change. The realm of the possible can be widened by this process, but it can also be narrowed as we have seen over the last 30 years.

The General Election of 1979 solidified the road that Britain would be pushed down in the next decade. The preconditions for Thatcherism were actually laid with the IMF bailout of 1976 and the cuts stipulated in the deal. The class interests of the elite clustered around the Conservatives had converged with the crises of the 1970s in the opening of an opportunity to erode the old institutions of social democracy. This amounted to the mass-privatisation of public assets to ensure a profit for the private sector and a policy of mass-unemployment through the deindustrialisation of the North. The aim was theruination of the trade unions and the end of the post-war settlement that had brought unprecedented rates of growth and development.The average rate of growth in the 1960s went from 3% to 4% and the average rate by the 1980s was 2%. But the golden age of capitalism that stretched from 1945 to 1975 was itself a product of a convergence of interest. The space opened for the welfare state after the war because the British ruling-class needed a way to secure its interests in an increasingly uncertain world.

Today it is unthinkable to go back on the road that we embarked upon in the late 70s. In classic Anglo-Saxon style there is no theoretical justification, only the gloss of economic pragmatism. This was the case with the tuition fee hike and if we prod deeper we find that there is no economic justification for fees at all. The truth is that the costs of higher education only add up to a minuscule amount in public spending – less than 1% of GDP to be exact. Yet the politicians dare not make the case on political grounds, there is no ideology and no alternative apparently. The coordinates of the possible are now so narrow that it is unbelievable that the rate of tax on the highest earners was over 90% in the 1950s. The idea of free education is now increasingly absurd, at least when it comes to higher education. The student protests were an attempt to hold onto what was left of the system that had been established decades before and vandalised in recent years. The aims of the students ranged from a progressive graduate tax to a free university system, placing them firmly within the social democratic consensus after WW2.

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