openDemocracyUK

Has England's higher education come to this: “I was personally punched and thrown down the stairs by officers.”

The London police defended the Minister of Higher Education by showing that even universities are to be subject to the criticism of truncheons. The Liberal Democrats of all parties should oppose this.
Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
14 June 2011

“I was personally punched and thrown down the stairs by officers.”

Meet Alex. He's a postgrad student at University College London. Yesterday, he joined a peaceful demonstration against Higher Education Minister David Willetts, who was speaking at the neighbouring London college SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies. And this is how the police responded. There were accounts of officers and security guards forcing protesters onto the ground and repeatedly kicking them. One person was left with a bleeding head. 5 were arrested.

The week after last year's election, some friends and I set up a campaign – 'No shock doctrine for Britain'. One of the things we hoped to do was help those who we believed would soon be fighting the then impending government cuts to understand their context as part of a radical right-wing ideological framework.

It was clear at the time that both David Cameron's Conservatives and Nick Clegg's Orange Bookers were about to commit to a significant re-structuring of the UK economy. A troika of destruction: cuts, passivisation and deregulation, were to be ushered in under the cover of the dust cloud lingering after the collapse of financial capitalism. This troika has followed in the wake of disasters the world over ever since Milton Friedman told his followers that “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.” The Lib Dem/Tory consensus on this was clear.

Such economic shock therapy has never come on its own. People don't simply sit idly by as our communities are ripped apart. So these policies may need to be forced through with the violent assistance by the state. Police oppression is not a separate problem from radical capitalism. It is a pre-condition. Around the world, privatisation and corporate control have not been delivered by democracy. They have walked hand-in-hand with brutality and the oppression of dissent.

But when we made this case, many questioned it. I did too, on occasion. While few with any sense of history would doubt the willingness of the Tories to have skulls split in their name, many of us thought better of the Lib Dems. Because, while it is radicals who change the world, liberals have always had their backs. At many a protest in recent years, Liberal Democrat activists have taken on the role of legal observer; their MPs have been the first to defend the right to protest. To take one example, some of their MPs visited climate camp then worked hard to hold the police accountable for their brutality there. We had learned that Labour was all too likely to abandon principle for the database state and its tabloid accolades. For liberals, the principle of free engagement in politics is often more important than the policies this engagement secures.

So there did seem to be some hope that the Lib Dems would use whatever influence they might have to ensure restraint. Such a hope was soon dashed. Where were the Lib Dems when Alfie Meadows was assaulted? When thousands of young people were kettled, criminalised, beaten up? Often, the same liberal activists were wearing the same yellow vests, still acting as legal observers. But their MPs have abandoned them and us and, I would argue, democracy. The Lib Dem parliamentary party and its government ministers do not formally directly control the police. But senior politicians have a duty to speak out when justice is not done. Their influence is essential. Now it is missing.

The principle of Clegg's centre-right liberalism is that of individual autonomy: economic individualism and with strong individual rights, free market capitalism and freedom from state oppression. But in trying to deliver their Orange Book utopia, Clegg has a problem. Few share his vision. We won't sit back and watch as he smashes the public institutions we dearly love. We think there is such a thing as society and this means, when it comes to higher education, keeping it public. And so he has to choose. He can either attempt to force through the marketisation of society, or he can enjoy the company of a free people.

At SOAS yesterday, we were reminded that he has made his choice. My generation is unlikely to forget.

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