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Lessons from the Iraq war

The end of the Iraq war comes at a time when apathy is turning into discontent for students in Brita

The end of the Iraq war comes at a time when apathy is turning into discontent for students in Britain.

By any stretch of imagination it has been an intense twelve months; the Arab Spring may-well feature as the defining moment of the decade to come, the 'Occupy' movement perseveres and we have seen large scale public sector strikes for the first time in a generation. Yet when we seek to uncover the birth of this current discontentment we need to look further. I believe it started nine years ago - and the Iraq war has in fact shaped the political attitude of my generation. So as Obama marked the end to the failed Iraq war, with at least a million dead, we need to start connecting the dots.

Marching in 2003 against the war, and coming to organise demonstrations in Manchester was certainly a significant moment towards my serving today as Vice-President Higher Education for NUS.

But whilst it was certainly a politicizing moment for many, it is also the case that for a generation constantly asked to participate in mainstream democracy, the system failed us - it simply didn't listen. And today as I travel across the country speaking with young people, the same anecdotes are presented on campus - "things are already decided and you can't do anything about it, so why bother?", "nobody listens in Parliament!" Surprisingly, the war, despite disappearing from public discourse, is rarely far from this conversation. Iraq presented a politicizing moment for some whilst also encouraging feelings of apathy in many others.

We have come to speak of a 'lost generation'. This is often, correctly, expressed as an economic and a social phenomenon - but it is also a real risk politically. My generation have engaged through the political structures - we marched in record numbers against Iraq, students were turned away from polling stations in student-heavy constituencies as they turned out to vote in 2010, and last year 50,000 of us marched against the trebling of tuition fees and tuition fees in the largest student demonstration in a generation. With little tangible to show for this - the war went on, the Liberal Democrats broke their pledge to students and tuition fees were trebled - the political class taught a generation that no matter how strong your argument or how many you are, your political participation is pointless.

As we look ahead, though governments have changed and enquiries have played out in the public eye, lessons do not seem to have been learnt. Barbaric intervention - against the will of a nation - not only killed a million but crippled generation's quality of life (including as we are seeing through the results of nuclear waste). Yet frighteningly, our own government officials have noted that should the US plan to strike at Iran, it would "seek, and receive, UK military help". David Miliband has already warned against "sleepwalking into a war with Iran" - the student movement must be ready to challenge what would be a further monumental miscalculation.

The end of the Iraq war comes at a time when apathy is turning into discontent for students in Britain. We rose strongly against the government's changes reform of higher education funding. The temperature of our global political climate is rising and priorities are changing - Occupy is a very real and new social movement, the Arab spring provides us confidence, and students have featured at the heart of both. Whilst others are powerfully claiming their role in democracy abroad, it is a time like no other for us to think about how to utilize our politicization that is gathering apace - and bring it into the mainstream.

Our student leadership has rightly spearheaded the fight against cuts to higher education, student quality and championed widening participation - and we will continue to do so as a priority. I was reminded that the National Union of Students was formed in 1922 - on the back of World War I, set up to fight for world peace. Ninety years on from then, and nine years on from the Iraq war, we must too reconnect with those striving for justice. In the same way that I shared the hurt of my colleagues at University who cried as members of their families were killed in Iraq, today we must take from the students in Egypt and Tunisia who organised beyond differences; indeed we must move beyond slogans and be pragmatic.

At a Conference I attended on Tuesday on the government's heavily-criticised and anti-dissent Prevent strategy in Leicester, Jesse Jackson rebuked that "radical rejection leads to radical reactions". The lost generation is finding itself again - it found me, not in Tahrir Square, but in Manchester. Let now the radical reaction of students in Britain transform apathy into activism, as the global movement to recapture our democracy comes home.

Usman Ali is the Vice President (Higher Education) of the National Union of Students

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