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The student movement evolves: why Laurie Penny has never felt prouder of her generation

In Trafalgar Square, the worst November snowstorms in decades are pummelling thousands of teenage protesters more effectively than any police kettle. The cops are there anyway, of course, clotting every exit from the square like rotten yellow scabs, sealing off the social dissidence from the more compliant tissue of the body politic. Right now Her Majesty's Finest are being reasonable, but earlier in the day, when these young protestors abandoned the planned route for their march after a tip-off that police planned to detain them again in the freezing sleet, it was a different matter altogether.

Videos are already emerging of police officers repeatedly punching children in the face, as one girl describes how her friend narrowly escaped death. "Some people had already gone through the kettlle, and Sarah screamed for people to come through. A policeman shoved her in the chest, and she fell into the road in front of a truck, which stopped about two feet away from her." Other witnesses later confirm this account.

I am leaning on a set of railings because my feet, frozen through from a seven-mile spontaneous rampage round central London, will no longer support me. Kids are still piling into the square from all directions, exhausted but undefeated, having walked out of school and university occupations across the city and come to join the shakedown. Now they are gathering in one corner of the square, screaming and hugging each other despite the howling wind. In the gusts of snow and debris, over the drone of police helicopters, the indefatigable samba band begins to play and a ragged cheer goes up. Britain's children's crusade has not been cowed by police brutality: they are dancing in the snow. Some of them quite obscenely.

The march from which they are returning has been a wild, rampant charge, two thousand protesters careering up Piccadilly, past the Ritz and the Trocadero, letting off smokebombs and chanting "no ifs, no buts, no education cuts!" under the corporate-sponsored Christmas lights of Oxford Street. To the bewildered tourists and salarymen snapping pictures from shopfronts this probably looks like chaos - but the chaos is terribly organised.

"I have no idea where we're going," says Melissa, 22. "Nobody does, and that's why it works." "If we don't know where we're going the police don't either," says her friend, "and that means they can't kettle us or catch us. It's perfect."

"These strategies for avoiding police brutality have been around since 2001," says the writer Shiv Malik, who is also at the protest, "but nobody actually sat down and thought about how to put them into action before. This is very clever - these kids learn fast," he pants as he tries to keep up with the mach. "Well, they are students, I suppose."

Before long, it's a cat-and-mouse game as police try to head off the march at various street exits; the young protesters simply veer off in the other direction, laughing and jeering. Sirens scream in the distance, but the police can't keep up with the pace of the march. It could be a Benny Hill sketch if it weren't for the bitter cold and the police meat wagons gathering on street corners.

As we go past Topshop, the students begin to shout about Topshop owner Sir Philip Green, one of many billionaires to benefit from this administration's generosity towards big business. "Philip Green - tax avoider!" they yell. Avoider, not evader. With a start, I realise that these young people have taken time out from smashing windows to share information on how to avoid being sued for libel.

Britain's new youth movement has evolved. The white-hot energy that exploded at Millbank three weeks ago has cooled into a hard-edged organising tool, making links with Trade Unions and anti-cuts groups up and down the country. What started as a riot has become a movement. At UCL, one of the movement's strategic hubs, serious-faced teenagers take detailed notes and man the phones to liaise with the media whilst others are already at their laptops, getting the word out via Twitter and Facebook about what's happening on the streets. These young people have been underestimated - by their parents, by their teachers and lecturers, and by successive neoliberal administrations -and that underestimation may yet shake this government to its core.

Evenings in the occupied lecture halls across the country are a jumble of joyful anti-establishment clichés, all twee improvised sing-songery and communal cooking and belting out the Internationale whilst someone presses more beer into your hands - but these are not the hedonists of 1968, and there is a strict divide between business and pleasure. There's a cleaning rota, booze is rationed to prevent rowdiness, and nobody is allowed to drink whilst decision-making meetings are taking place.

The interminable meetings are based on a complicated consensus system involving wiggly hand-signals. At times it all descends into Pythonesque farce as the students discuss the exact legal status of chalking messages on the pavements - but there's a point to it all. "The process is meant to prevent leaders emerging," one student informs me. "It's important to make sure everyone's voice is equally heard."

These young people are sick of leaders, even leaders our own age. They won't be told what to do, but that sentiment is more of a honed manifesto than a collective teenage door-slamming strop. When the meeting is over and consensus reached, the collective slams back into action, planning an escalation in the protests leading up to the crucial vote on tuition fees later this month.

These protesters have a honed protestant work ethic, a coherent ideological framework, stunning technological facility and absolutely nothing to lose. No wonder the administration is getting worried. The students at UCL are now desperately mustering plans to defend their organising space, which may soon be forcibly evicted by police who are no longer quite the friendly bobbies from children's telly. In fact, the police seem more determined to punish these protesters extra-judicially for their defiance the clearer it becomes how little actual crime they are committing.

As night falls on the makeshift rally in Trafalgar square and I begin to feel faint from the chill, someone directs me past the stamping crowd on Nelson's column to the tea-stand. The students from SOAS have brought hot tea and homemade cookies and are selling them for pennies as a "gesture of solidarity." "It's a new world order!" says a girl behind me in the queue.

Sitting on a fountain in Trafalgar square, slurping a nice hot cup of tea in the freezing rain and snow, watching the children's crusade brave the elements and police lines to chant for the downfall of a government it sees as corrupt and illegitimate, I have never felt prouder of my generation.

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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.