Rent is a thorny issue at St Andrews - we have some of the very highest student accommodation prices in the country. Several years ago the University introduced year-on-year increases which have crippled many student budgets, with demand for even the cheapest accommodation skyrocketing and the most expensive accommodation — an 'eco-hotel' on the outskirts of town — left half-empty.
My hall last year was towards the lower-middle end of the price-range, despite being a beautiful Victorian building, once a hotel. My year was the last year of its life as a student residence — it was sold for a fortune in a high profile transaction to a developer who is busy converting it into luxury timeshare apartments for golfing visitors.
Meanwhile, much of that money has gone towards funding the building of an extension to those top-of-the-range student flats (they become a hotel over the summer). Economically very sound for the University, and perhaps, yes, a little ecologically sound as well—the apartments have won a Green Tourism Award — but certainly not the best deal for students.
I mention all this because a few days ago those new flats were officially opened by Gordon Brown, fulfilling a long-standing promise. We politically-interested students discovered the news only a week before — I saw it in the student newspaper that Sunday. I think my reaction was the reaction of many: What an opportunity!
At the beginning of this academic year Tony Blair visited St Andrews to host talks on the progress of peace in Northern Ireland then, as with the Brown visit, there was no doubt that we had to demonstrate about something. When so much of your life is spent expressing anger at government policy and bottling up a fury against the administration, the opportunity to let it all go in a public display of feeling is very much relished.
The decision this time was to use the visit as an opportunity to tackle the rents issue, both locally and nationally—protesting our own student accommodation prices and also a government housing policy causing a great deal of suffering for many. It was going to be a motley protest, though, with individuals wanting to seize the chance to express anger over militaristic foreign policy, Trident renewal, and, in my own case, greenwashing — the University's and the government's. I resented my University using its “eco-flats” to build up an image of sustainability when I know it falls far short of many people's expectations, and I resented Brown making the visit a trifling contribution to his own pale green branding.
Pulling a protest together in a week is no mean feat, and the group of students who organised it did an amazing job. They had to make banners and placards, organise a protesting space with the University and the police, and advertise the demonstration—that before any of the extra organising, such as alerting the media, could be done. In the end, a couple of dozen students showed up, which by St Andrews standards was a great success.
“Bombs fall! Rents rise! You've got to prioritise!” was our official chant, and that was what greeted a smiling Gordon as he stepped out from his (presumably hybrid) monster of a vehicle. He dashed into the reception of the flats before we could get a good yell in, though, and so we had to wait a full hour before getting another pop at him. Someone brought a Clarsach out to play peace music. Inside, some enterprising resident of the flats set off the reception's fire alarm, disrupting the proceeds and causing much hilarity among the protesters. By the time Gordon darted back to his car, we'd come up with a new chant: “Who bought all the nukes?” to the tune of a popular football anthem . . .
The event was a great first move for the newly-formed Lower Rents Now! Coalition, but for me it was also something more than that: it was an expression of frustration and a bonding together of the angry. It is always a wonderful thing to get together with like-minded angry people just to shout. Demonstration's not just a way of effecting change — it's also a show of solidarity and opportunity to get righteously loud in public.
It's a little bit risky and frowned-upon to admit that, I think. There's often a feeling amongst activists that we've always got to be working at our hardest for change, and that the image of demonstrators as a bunch of self-gratifying hippies has got to be avoided at all costs. There is a truth in that, but there's also a danger in being self-righteous — not least that the demands we place on ourselves lead to what's known as “activist burn-out” — the frighteningly high turnover rates in activist groups due to exhaustion and frustration.
I've been thinking a great deal about these issues recently, and the 'Brown-washing' demo had me thinking about it some more. Our elected student representative for accommodation issues, who is also a good friend of mine, made a speech to our rally—from the other side of the fence. He did commend our efforts, but to me it also sounded a little like he was claiming his own efforts — engaging with the University in productive conversation, rather than just shouting — were far more fruitful. And there's a truth in that, too, and I had to think about it. At first I just got angry with him — though he's a friend, we're very divided ideologically — but I've had time to settle and think about it some more.
There's a tendency amongst campaigners of both stripes to divide along exactly those lines—those who engage ('reformists', to put it crudely) versus those who demonstrate and use direct action ('revolutionaries'). But I'm seriously worried about dividing ourselves up so. It seems to me that I'm perfectly capable of having a productive conversation with those I'm in opposition to, as well as chanting footballing anthems as they escape. I don't have to be a different person in order to do that — in fact, if I had my way I'd wear the very same clothes. The tactics aren't in opposition, or even just complementary: they can all be part of the same battle-plan, fought by the same people. Dividing ourselves down the middle does our cause no great service.
To that end, what I'd like to have done would have been to have had a chat with Mr Brown — not as a student representative, and certainly not wearing a suit, but as an activist and demonstrator, explaining exactly why I'm in opposition, and why I'm so angry. I wonder if he understands why we were shouting.
I didn't get that chance. I did go into the reception area after he'd left to have a scout around, and made a move towards talking to some of the suits—all the usual University officials were there, as well as Sir Menzies Campbell, who happens to be our Chancellor. But the aghast looks with which my big black coat and silly hat were greeted as I entered intimidated me so much that I barely made an attempt. In fact, the only people with whom I could have a laugh with and a chat were the police who had previously been forcing our protest group to tow the line — they were queuing up to get perks in the form of the nibbles from the buffet. Just my side wanting a conversation clearly isn't enough.