The New Sound of the Streets
The Scotsman, December 11th 2010
Protest and rebellion are in the air. Those well-known songs of radical chic, ‘Revolution’ and ‘Power to the People’ have been regularly played on radio and TV; at the same time, red flags, anarchist slogans and student occupations have suddenly appeared on streets and university campuses.
The first marked the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination, which happened this Wednesday past; the second saw the emergence of a mass student protest movement against tuition fees. Some of this may evoke John Lennon and 1968, but the more relevant comparison is with those other mass protests against Conservative Governments: the 1979-81 discontent against mass unemployment, and 1990 opposition to the poll tax.
Something significant is changing in British politics which goes beyond tuition fees; there is the campaign of the UK Uncut movement against tax avoidance by leading UK companies such as Vodafone and Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group. This touches on how young people are seen in our political system, issues and tensions between the generations, and how our politics understands this.
The mainstream political view emphasises the democratic disconnection of young people, and in particular 18-24 year olds who have low turnout levels at UK general elections.
Yet our politics and political system systematically stigmatises and demonises large numbers of young people. Instead, it increasingly focuses on older people who vote more and issues of concern to them such as council tax levels and care for the elderly. The Lib Dems pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees at the last election was the only major youth-orientated policy by any of the major parties. In a sea of grey-haired policies, that is one reason why it stood out so much.
The political debate on tuition fees has focused on both sides on ‘fairness’, but what is underneath this is the issue of inter-generational fairness and responsibility.
Many of the young people protesting are showing a sense of wider citizenship and responsibility and concern for the fate of future generations which should shame our politicians. They are taking a stand which isn’t just about themselves, but the compact which is meant to exist across the generations, and against the commercialisation of higher education.
Our political class and the baby boomer generation don’t understand this with their short-term, selfish thinking. Strangely enough the most coherent critique of this baby boomer entitlement culture has come from David Willetts’ ‘The Pinch’, published just before the general election.
This is a thoughtful, studious book which makes the case that the baby boomer generation – those born between 1945 and 1965 – have in Willetts words ‘stolen their children’s future’ and built a cultural, demographic and political dominance which disfigures our society. The narcissistic, self-obsessed, sophistic attitude of this generation – personified by the personal politics of aggrandisement of people such as Tony Blair – works against younger people. Willetts is now Minister for Universities and Science, and strangely now silent on these huge issues.
Much of this springs from how we do our politics. Our political system increasingly excludes young people, while politicians more and more articulate a political language, values and philosophy which focuses on older voters.
The consequences of this for all the Conservative-Lib Dem Government warm talk of caring about pre-school years, tackling inter-generational poverty, and social mobility, is a widening generational and social divide which goes to the very heart of what kind of society we live in.
Increasingly the direction of politics across the Western world point to young people becoming less and less optimistic about the future. Research by Richard Eckersley funded by Australian Government showed that there is a direct relationship between the way politicians and institutional opinion talk about globalisation and young people’s hopes and fears.
The constant talk of globalisation as inevitable and an over-powering leviathan increasingly leads to young people feeling hopeless, powerless, and believing they have no say in their future. And this has a direct effect on young people’s self-esteem, confidence and mental health.
Fortunately, large numbers of young people increasingly question and challenge this state of affairs. They more and more see a version of the world and the future being presented to them which is increasingly remote, economic determinist, and focused on a narrow slither of elites and winners.
It is true that there have been some violent elements in the student protest movement, but most of it is peaceful. Much more of it is characterised by being spontaneous, self-organised and fluid, using social media such as flashmob. This is a very different kind of politics from the traditional left form of protest – last seen during the anti-Iraq war movement – which entailed marching the troops along the same route week in week out to the same designation and a concluding rally involving the usual suspects.
There is as serious a set of issues facing the Metropolitan Police and how they manage and deal with protest. This is a force which has at crucial points got things fundamentally wrong: as in the tragic deaths of Jean Charles De Menezes and Ian Tomlinson. The police have to work with protestors and recognise the right to dissent.
Beyond the coalition and fate of the Lib Dems and even tuition fees, the new protest movements mark a watershed for our politics.
Can a political system which has narrowed and become arrogant and insular, learn that it is part of the problem? Unless we can embrace a wholesale transformation of our tarnished democracy, changing it to one which listens and understands young people, we are heading for trouble.
The British political system once worked in the middle of the last century when we had two political parties giving voice and representation to two classes. This can no longer be said. It has become fixated in a fragmented, divided, insecure society on those who have the most status, assets and inheritance – and made their self-interests into a worldview and ideology. And it has come to disregard those who don’t fit into it or challenge this perspective.
This is a generational and social chasm and divide which British politics and society needs to urgently face. We need to listen to the voices of the young people on our streets. The alternative is an increasingly harsh, nasty future, and one shaped by a new era of politics which becomes more and more aggressive, confrontational, and shaped by even more heavy handed action by the police and state.