Student Riots in Britain

Peter Wood

A video of a 15-year-old British schoolboy offering a specimen of “we are going to stand up and we are going to fight back” oratory has become an international hit. The boy, Rodney Owen McCarthy, participated in the November 10 street demonstrations-cum-riots provoked by news that the government intends to triple tuition at British universities to about 9,000 pounds ($14,000) per year. The protests echoed those in the U.S. last spring when similar announcements in California and several other states sparked mass protests.

The video of Mr. McCarthy speaking at the Coalition of Resistance National Conference in Camden on November 27 is available in a number of places, but perhaps most conveniently on Huffington Post, where it elicited some hoorays but quite a few more harpoons. The organizers—student and faculty unions—claimed that about 50,000 protesters turned out, though the estimate seems high. Those protests turned violent when students began smashing windows, burning placards, and trashing the offices of the Conservative Party. Police corralled many of the protesters using a technique called “kettling,” in which they were crowded into a confined public space. In his speech, Rodney McCarthy seems especially upset over having been kettled.

Mr. McCarthy, however, also sees a larger theme. He announces that this protest marks a historical change from a generation of students who passively accepted what the authorities hand out to a generation of students ready to “fight back.” He explains. “We are no longer that post-ideological generation.”

He was right to the extent that protests have continued. On Thursday December 9, following the passage in the House of Commons of the coalition government’s bill raising undergraduate tuition, a new round of protests broke out. The New York Times reported with a front-page picture of Prince Charles and his wife the Duchess of Cornwall being attacked in their Rolls Royce on London’s Regent Street by some 50 protesters hurling sticks and bottles at them. It wasn’t a case of mistaken identity. The NYT also reported the protesters shouting, “Off with their heads” and “Tory scum.” Elsewhere “rioters set fires and tried to topple statues across from the House of Commons.” The Chronicle reported on the protests as well, and quoted the head of the National Union of Students as saying, “We’ve taken to the streets in our thousands, won the arguments and the battle for public opinion.” He adds, “But this is not the end, and our protests and our work have sparked a new wave of activism which will grow stronger by the day.”

Whether the National Student Union has really won the battle for public opinion remains to be seen. Assaulting the royal family, attacking public property, setting fires and the like are not necessarily the most persuasive arguments that the government’s austerity measures are ill-conceived.

In the U.S., comments on the riots in general divide along the familiar polarities. Some see the tuition increases as an attempt by the privileged to deny educational opportunity to the less well off; others see the protesters as demanding public payment for a private good. Americans viewing the video of Mr. McCarthy register the range of attitudes. One of the Huff-Po commentators (“lunacougar”) sees Mr. McCarthy as reinvigorating progressive ideals:

Our baby-boomer generation all benefited from the misery and sacrifices of our parents & grand-parents. Now the elite want to snatch away what we had from our children & grand-children in order to perpetuate war & oppression & to maintain an unsustainable life-style at least until we’re all gone. We should be ashamed at what we’ve allowed them to do & take hope in that the young are waking up and taking to the streets on behalf of all of us.

But the lunacougar faction faces off against a more skeptical cohort, of whom “realitytrumpsbull” is typical. He sees Mr. McCarthy as, “a junior member of the entitlement class [...] being petulant, because his bottle is late.”

What to make of all this? Mr. McCarthy makes a vivid impression. We first see him in the video while he is being introduced by the ULU president as the final speaker. Clearly he has been picked out by the leadership for his talent as a speaker, and we can see him grinning in anticipation of the moment. He jumps right into his speech, the camera catching him in close-up from below, and lit in a golden light that accentuates his beardless youth. Out of him comes tumbling a jumble of clichés from the radical left. But he is poised and nicely mixes his heatedness with humor. Reduced to the printed word, it is hard to see much here:

You know this was meant to be the first post-ideological generation, right? This was meant to be the generation that never thought of anything bigger than our Facebook profiles and our TV screens. This was meant to be the generation where the only things that Saturday night meant was X Factor. I think now that claim is quite ridiculous. I think now that claim is quite preposterous. I think now we’ve shown that we are as ideological as ever before. Now we have shown that solidarity and comradeship and all those things that used to be associated with students are as relevant now as they have ever been.

But lit up by his passion and set aglow by good lighting, Mr. McCarthy merits the attention he has received.

Whether we should be inspired, appalled, or amused by this is something else. The young man is in a kind of infectious delight, but over what? Seemingly over his and fellow protesters’ sense of collective power, manifested mostly by crowding into the streets and smashing things up. “Solidarity and comradeship” are the values he extolled—values that have their historical locus in communist organizing, though of course solidarity gained a whole new layer of meaning in the Polish workers’ opposition to Soviet tyranny. Mr. McCarthy comes across to me as a young Jack Cade, euphoric in his sense of the moment, profoundly ignorant, and ready to inspire others to acts of extreme folly.

The austerity measures approved by the House of Commons will clearly pose a degree of hardship on many British students who hope to attend college. There is a real problem here, though one drastically oversimplified by the protesters. Whether Britain has any better fiscal alternatives, I don’t know. Cutting public subsidies to higher education, however, is surely not the worst alternative. For one thing, it returns to individuals and their families the question of whether pursuing a college degree is really their best choice.  College is surely not the only path out of poverty; for many in fact it isn’t a path out of poverty at all. The British no less than Americans need to consider alternatives.

The matter that concerns me more, however, is the readiness of adults to romanticize adolescents such as Mr. McCarthy and his fellow protesters. The protesters, whether on the street or at the microphone, have so far had nothing to say other than to mix class resentment and appeals to thuggish power. Higher education in their rhetoric is a “right” plain and simple—something that the state is obligated to provide at very low cost to the individual. It isn’t on its face a very convincing argument, and all the less convincing when it is mixed with public disorder and violence.

Of course to some, public disorder and violence are an invigorating tonic. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” recalled the older Wordsworth, reflecting on the passion among English youth for the French Revolution—viewed from a safe distance—”but to be young was very heaven.”

The deeper problem is the longstanding readiness of politicians among others to kettle young men and women in higher education as an alternative to unemployment and underemployment. What is needed is an economy vibrant enough to create meaningful work for those who aren’t really interested in what higher education has to offer. 

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