#demo2010, a new generation seized Britain's Parliament Square and it won't be defined by Rock Toffs swinging from the Cenotaph

The British government lost control of the capital last night; it was not supposed to do so.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
11 December 2010

One big part of Thursday's extraordinary demonstration has not been reported. Where did it come from? In the past, few got to Parliament Square, let alone stayed there. This time, a huge mobilisation mobbed parliament as the Commons actually debated the issue the protest was about. Something new and generational is happening. (I have written up a comparison of today's 'Tens' with the 'Sixties' in Oxford Left Review and the New Statesman.)

When did a confrontation last take place outside Parliament as policy was being decided wthin? Perhaps the most famous was Black Friday in November 1910, a hundred years ago.

One reason it is rare is because those who fix the parliamentary timetable move in quick and arbitrary ways, in part to prevent such confrontations. But a mobilisation of yesterday's size, certainly over 20,000, without a formal leadership, came about in hardly more than a week. It is apt that it should coincide with the staggering uplifting of the lid by Wikileaks - as well as the web counter-attacks in defense of its co-founder and figurehead Julian   Assange, in response to the global witch-hunt against him. The internet is helping dissolve the familiar certainties of official power.

The simple existence of yesterday's march on Westminster, in other words, was a big change. One that has challenged the presumption of power. 

What was it like? I have posted two short phone videos: one (see above), of a hug, drums and the police line at 3pm, the other of the 12 Cuts of Christmas with fires. You can see, in the early afternoon it became an unplanned festival of protest.

We were not supposed to have got into Parliament Square at all, but the numbers floored the police plans. The media is obsessed with the violence that resulted at the end of the night. Archbishop Cranmer is understandably upset by the violation of the Cenotaph, left as unprotected as Charles and Camilla (hat tip Toque). But while he takes the trouble to show all the pictures of what upsets him and generously tells demonstrators they will have failed if they don't appeal to the nation's sympathies, he makes no effort I can see to lend his own sympathies. (I've added more on the Cen see below)

Suzanne Moore feels that student fees are overriding other issues: AV, the marketisation of the NHS, cuts in housing benefits. She is right except that this has become much bigger than a student issue, with UK Uncut being one of the demonstration's organising networks.

An alliance has come about over higher education. The mobilisation of school chidren against the abolition of the Educational Maintainance Allowance has created working-class involvement. Middle-class graduate students and teaching staff are furious over the staggering 80 per cent withdrawal of the teaching grant. Students themselves fear hugely increased fees and debt. The key is perhaps the poorer families with children in school between the ages of 16 and 18 that are being hit in the wallet. Nick Pearce sets out this argument well. Laurie Penny witnesses it in her brilliant reports from the front line of the outrageous kettles:

Many of these young people come from extremely deprived backgrounds, from communities where violence is a routine way of gaining respect and status. They have grown up learning that the only sure route out of a lifetime of poverty and violence is education -- and now that education has been made inaccessible for many of them.

The Prime Minister told the Commons Liaison Committee on 18 November that the EMA could be abolished because, "there is another piece of quite well-thought-through research that shows that 90% of the money is effectively dead-weight cost, paid to people who would stay on anyway". He added he was confident that they would be "phased out" in a "smooth process". So that's all right then.

Anna Davis of the Evening Standard reported last month that

More than 30,000 people in the [London] area claim education maintenance allowance which helps poor students aged 16 to 18 afford to stay in school or college. But the scheme is being scrapped by the Government at the end of this academic year.

Across London, almost 100,000 teenagers claim payments of between £10 and £30 a week. Figures from the Department for Education show the biggest demand is in east London — more than 5,000 in Newham get the allowance, along with more than 4,000 in Tower Hamlets, compared with 900 in Richmond.

Leaving the other thousand to be seamlessly managed, you can make your own guess as to whether 8,000 children in Newham and Tower Hamlets are saying, 'We were going to attend school anyway, what's the loss of £20 a week as our family enjoys £24,000 a year'. Just think of the felt impact on a fifteen-year-old looking forward to their EMA, who listens to their mother or father groan with pain at the news that this will be abolished in September. These are children in working households. Could they experience sentiments of guilt, rage and pain that Archbishop Cranmer might empathise with? Isn't it possible that they might experience the loss of the EMA, as analysed by Nick Pearce, as a massive, painful blow - an act of, let's not say 'violence', that tips them into the unemployed at the age of 16?

The BBC's Nick Robinson is a regime journalist. Usually, in his eyes, the regime and the government are at one. But he can be professional enough to know when there is a difference - and he reported on the News at 10 last night that the government had won the vote but it had not won the argument. That's because the argument had taken to the streets and the government lost control of them. What's happened is much, much bigger than student fees and whatever it is that the Coalition is planning, it is not going to be "phased in" in a "smooth process".

Update: The usual attempt going back over the decades to personalise, diminish the demonstration as being a vehicle for small, unrepresentative figures of violence proceeds. New Left Project has usefully linked to an article by Raymond Williams on 'Why I demonstrate (opens in pdf)' that was originally published in The Listener in 1968. But here is a problem, the "Yob" who swung from the flag on the Cenotaph turns out to be the son of the immensely wealthy Pink Floyd guitarist. Charlie Gilmour issued an apology thanks to his father's PR firm the Mail notes, it bore all the hallmarks of agency prose. On television he spoke of being out to trash the town in a plumy accent and little sign of regret and the tabloids have signalled his "private education". So while the regular youth of the demonstration respected the memorial to the British dead, it took the demo's Bullingdon boy to attack them; showing off his philistinism and contempt, claiming not even to know what it was - maybe this is what a very expensive education gets you these days. And they let him into Cambridge! Could it be his Dad's millions? In a recent devastating analysis of Oxbridge, David Lammy has exposed that it operates an unspoken colour-bar, so as to ease the way for the likes Gilmour.

Will the media succeed in turning the public image and understanding of the demo into mere upper-class thuggery, with Gilmour as a Mail photo shows, even up there by the Royal Rolls? I suspect not. Paul Mason's Newsnight report this evening, Laurie Penny's interview from the UCLOccuption, and the calm, fearless live responses of Clare Solomon suggest that it will not be easily cauterised. We will see whether the opinion polls show the public increasing its support for the Coalition in the aftermath of the confrontations. But I have a feeling that a generational divide has opened up and we are entering the rapids.

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