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The day the teenagers turned on Topshop: Laurie Penny reports

What has been stolen from this angry generation? Hope.

Oxford Street at Christmastime is a special hell, and the last Monday in November is no exception. Grim-faced shoppers mummified in winter coats shove their way down freezing pavements to do their duty to the market, while a panopticon of corporate-sponsored festive lights glares down from slate skies. With no warning, a hundred young protesters pour across the road holding banners and whistles. The children of Britain are leading the consuming classes to mutiny.

These young activists are the same students and school pupils who were kettled in central London on 24 November after demonstrating to protect higher education. They have not gone away. They come from the buses and the Underground, pouring out of the backstreets in twos and threes, chanting: "No ifs, no buts, no education cuts!" The target is the flagship store of Topshop, the global byword for successful British commerce, owned by Philip Green, billionaire and business adviser to the Prime Minister.

When we were young, this world-famous, multilevel store, with its blaring music and cool-looking young employees, was an Aladdin's cave of consumer delights and cutting-edge fashion. Now, however, the sales tags have fallen from our eyes. "Philip Green's taxation could pay for our education!" the protesters chant, accessorising their woollies with clashing orange bandanas, two fingers stuck up at the matchy-matchy aesthetic of the Kate Moss display. "Please occupy Topshop for us," whispers a young shop assistant with exciting, angular hair. "We're right behind you."

Green revolution

This youth movement isn't just about university fees - it's about challenging a political class that systematically gives the needs of the market greater priority than the people, offering tax breaks for big businessmen while ripping the heart out of education and social security.

Britain's child crusaders are beginning to win the argument, the raw edge of their righteous indignation slicing through the semiotic debris of state propaganda. Messages of solidarity come from all sections of the public - from parents, teachers, social workers and even police officers. Teenagers who came to buy novelty tights and lip gloss toss their bags down and join the protest.

When the demonstration ends, we march back to the student occupation at University College London, a welcoming space where smiling people hand out cups of tea and draw up well-being committees. These kids are savagely organised. Watching them plan their next action, I feel that someone really ought to have warned David Cameron not to underestimate the bloody-mindedness of British youth. These young people are angry. They are angrier than anyone could have anticipated.

What has been taken from them to make them so angry? Hope, that's what. Hope, and the fragile bubble of social aspiration that sustained us through decades of mounting inequality; hope and the belief that if we worked hard and did as we were told and bought the right things, some of us at least would get the good jobs and safe places to live that we'd been promised.

Hope was the emotional engine of a decade of dizzying economic growth. Now it's gone. Thatcher and Reagan knew you couldn't take away hope altogther, which is why they replaced the politics of collective bargaining with a cynical, but seductive, politics of aspiration and individualism. The coalition has forgotten that it's not enough for millionaire politicians to preach the politics of austerity when all they have to offer is more austerity.

Back on Oxford Street, as the police vans scream into view, the children's crusade stands firm. "They want to marketise our education," says Ben, 21, his breath clouding in the bitter air. "So we're going to educate their market."

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.