Mindless Barbarity – the Road to Progress

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“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.” – Henry David Thoreau

Condemnation scattered newspaper stalls in the wake of the student demonstrations in London. “Brainless” was one particularly amusing tag line beneath the now commonly brandished pictures of protest attendees: breaking through windows, menacingly hooded, faces masked, intentions clearly evil; amusing simply due to the irony of The Sun calling anybody brainless.

I wish to defend all those who took action, not merely those who attended that single day, who went beyond raised voices and whimsical placards in the name of a cause they believe in; those who ignore the condemnation of people who are either against the purpose of the protest or who care less about it than damage and disruption which in no way concerns them, armchair statesmen, the middle aged riddled with self righteous prejudice who salivate at any chance to criticise “lazy students” with nothing better to do. The simple matter of fact is, politics would be an entirely different phenomenon without student intervention, and the fact that there is “nothing better to do” is very much the point.

Peaceful protest has historically been proven to be futile; the political equivalent of holding up a bank with a toy pistol. The protests against both the intervention in Iraq and the initial introduction of tuition fees to British universities were orderly, well-mannered, ineffective. Since their first introduction, incremental increases have occurred, such as the move to £3000 in 2004, and now the move to allow maximum fees of £9000, an option many universities will take. The only real political dissent in reaction to the decision was Ken Livingstone’s accusation that ministers were “whipping away a ladder of opportunity which they themselves had climbed”. Contrastingly, the poll tax riots, particularly the one occurring in Central London on 31 March 1990 arguably contributed to the fall of Margaret Thatcher and subsequent abolition of the tax system. These demonstrations were, as I’m sure you’re aware, not peaceful and well-mannered – they were effective.

Without doubt, there were countless people in that kettle purely to feed off adrenaline; there were also people there who misdirected their anger against innocent people. This acknowledgement that some of the protesters motives were not wholeheartedly and unwavering loyal to the issue at hand must be met with an acknowledgment from all the critics of the violence that this doesn’t really matter. So many people did not all just decide to go out for a fight one day; they have any day to do this. What was happening was the aggregate effect of a group of people both very angry and very aware that they had the power to make something happen, and, whether it successful or not, the duty to exercise that power. I cannot be the only one who found it a beautiful thing to behold. I admit I was struck by the romance of it, people felt they were being wronged, not happy with those they had placed in power, and so they put themselves forward, entered willingly into a dangerous and uncomfortable position all in the name of doing what they thought was right. This is not detrimental to politics. This is politics in its purest and most accessible form, but due to its apparently brutal nature it has been dismissed as the accumulation of testosterone, disillusionment and a generation turned violent by modern media. You don’t ask questions with God on your side. So to do these people refuse to even consider civil disobedience as it goes against what they view to be acceptable Political practice, which, unless I am mistaken, is the purpose of civil disobedience; to circumvent the system you view as wrong in the first place, and to avoid playing the professional politicians on their own ground, to show them how unsatisfied one is in the most simple way possible. I fail to see how people who embrace indifference or who lack any kind of conviction, will to fight or human concern can criticise the motives of others.

It is doubtful whether the extension of the women’s franchise would have occurred when it did without the sacrifices and the willingness of the women involved to go beyond the “acceptable” and proper channels of accelerating change. Obviously they too were chastised, saying they were ruining their own cause, discrediting themselves as a viable voice in politics and only forcing themselves out to the inaudible fringe. In fact, the opposite happened.  The only movement to the fringe was the result of manipulation and political manoeuvring. What happened was that their cause was forced to the forefront of public debate and idle gossip, in every home in Britain and unavoidably parliament where eventually their cause was won.

Rather than labelling the demonstrations as thuggish, an example of young people’s brutality of this day and age, critics should remember the mindless brutality of Brighton Beach in the 1960s, or the football hooliganism of the ‘80s, and instead feel proud of today’s youth for taking on a much bigger enemy for a much more meaningful cause, revelling in the explosion of a political consciousness absent for so long but with so much potential to do such great things. I for one am glad I have witnessed the beginning; the moment the wave of indifference broke and rolled back, sweeping much of Parliament square with it.

Article by Jack Cowell.
Edited by Matthew Byatt.