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Wednesday, November 24, 2010 

Protest hyperbole and the not completely mundane reality.

One of the less attractive traits some of us on the left have is just how easily we resort to hyperbole when in the midst of what on the surface seems to be a wonderful example of the people power we often idealise. Anyone can get swept along by the moment, yet it's difficult not to groan when faced with the exuberance and excitement of Laurie Penny describing the teenagers around her in Whitehall as being part of a children's crusade. Not just because of the unhelpful connotations which now surround use of the word in such a context, but also as to how it isn't the most helpful historical reference: most now accept that there were no children's crusades as romanticised by the chroniclers of the day, and even if there were a few such events, then they didn't actually involve what we would now classify as children.

Not that only Penny has been caught in the temporary euphoric spell, as the usually more grounded Lenin also declares today's protests to be part of the biggest student rebellion since '68. More than one generation will dispute that. It's also not as if the occupation of some university buildings is recently unprecedented; many were temporarily taken over in protest at the Israel-Gaza war of December 2008-January 2009, with deals being struck to ensure that more students from the impoverished and beleaguered territory would be able to come to study in this country to end the sit-ins.

There is however no disputing that this is an organic, fluid and highly-motivated protest movement which has put everything else so far done in opposition to both the cuts and the rise in tuition fees to shame. Even the concrete shithole I call home, so thoroughly bourgeois for the most part that the biggest ructions of recent years were over minor changes to the bus timetable, has seen the best attended protest I can remember ever being staged here with at least a couple of hundred schoolchildren and sixth-formers marching to the council's offices. Prior to the Iraq war we could only expect around between 50 and 75 to turn up for similar local action. If it's happening here, then it's almost certainly taking place in towns and cities major and minor, beyond the reports that have mainly focused on London, Bristol and Brighton, where brief trouble flared.

Brief trouble is probably putting it more dramatically than the true picture. After being embarrassed two weeks ago by deciding not to bother putting anyone outside Tory HQ, regardless of how it was only a matter of yards from where the NUS march ended, the police were out in force and back sadly to the tactics which post the G20 protests it was hoped they'd think carefully about before using again. Despite the Adapting to Protest report from Denis O'Connor, which made clear that officers were meant to facilitate demonstrations as much as control them, it was interesting to note that no one was being allowed anywhere near the Liberal Democrats' HQ, nor was Westminster itself open to access should anyone have wished to exercise their democratic right to lobby their MP. As for leaving an unprotected police van parked right in the middle of Whitehall, either someone's going to be getting severely bollocked in the morning or it was just a happy coincidence that the local constabulary had provided a focal point for the protests, not to mention the TV news and tomorrow's papers. This said, some hardly helped themselves; as amusing as it was when the kid asked what he was holding by Nick Robinson, who unlike everyone else seemed to be able to enter and exit the "kettle" no questions asked, responded with the soon to be legendary "a rasclart weapon" while holding it up, as usual the small amount of troublemakers may well have spoilt the experience for the others.

Key will ultimately be whether this in fact turns out to be the peak of the protests. Most mass-movements which spring up almost from nowhere tend to fade away just as quickly. When most of those who previously took part in the demonstrations won't be personally affected by the rise in tuition fees should they be voted through, it really is going to depend on the younger ones who first made their voices heard today who will be. As true as it is that today's protests were all but leaderless, without that vital component the chances are all the greater that this will be that one-off. Who or what fills the role will be integral to keeping up the pressure on a government which is there to be cracked. With the real cuts yet to be made, these could still be the opening skirmishes to the resistance some on the left are already eager to portray it as.

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