Of culture and anarchy

The student protests were not an aberration but part of Britain’s rich history of dissent

"Drum and bass is playing and the beer is open." That was how the Sky News presenter Kay Burley ended a report on the student protests of 10 November, which culminated in the occupation of Tory HQ on Millbank in central London. The affected horror and banal sensationalism of her words encapsulate the mainstream media's reaction to the day's events.

The next morning, almost every national newspaper published an identical photograph of a masked man kicking at one of the plate glass windows that lined the ground floor of the building. (A wider crop of the same picture, ­circulated online several days later, showed the man surrounded by a throng of photo­graphers.) How could a protest consisting of the "sons and daughters of Middle England", as one BBC reporter put it, be hijacked by “anarchists"?

The truth is that the protest was not hijacked. The occupation was a spontaneous display of the anger shared by many of the 52,000 people who had turned up to march that morning. Most of the several hundred teenagers and twentysomethings who streamed into the foyer and on to the roof of 30 Millbank were not hardened subversives. They showed themselves capable of distinguishing between ­minor property damage and violence directed at people, rounding on the idiot who threw a fire extinguisher from the roof, with boos and chants of "stop throwing shit".

What's more, the breakaway protesters had a clear, coherent political message. As one told a Guardian journalist at the scene: "We stand against the cuts, in solidarity with all the poor, elderly, disabled and working people affected. We are against all cuts and the marketisation of education. We are occupying the roof of Tory HQ to show we are against the Tory system of attacking the poor and helping the rich. This is only the beginning."

Those words could prove to be prophetic. In recent months, as talking heads have debated whether Britain could or would emulate the mass protests against spending cuts seen in continental Europe, we've been given the impression that social unrest is something that happens elsewhere. The prospect of its crossing the Channel has been invoked as if public protest were a foreign disease, picked up on summer holiday, perhaps, and brought home to wreak havoc in the winter months. Strikes, protests and riots are a speciality of the French and Greeks, so goes the suggestion, and not very British. That's not how we do things here.

Yet Britain, too, has its own submerged history of protest. In this country, as elsewhere, the great advances in democracy have been pushed forward by unrest; popular movements that the wealthy and their defenders in parliament or the press have sought to denigrate, dismiss and repress. "The thing that is frustrating," the historian Edward Vallance, author of A Radical History of Britain, tells me, "is the sense that mass demonstrations and riots are different from politics. They come from the same source. They are an extension of the kind of political developments that we think are part of politics - for example political parties, holding elections and electioneering."

Rise like lions

Vallance's point is well illustrated by the long struggle for votes of the 19th and 20th centuries. At St Peter's Field in Manchester in 1819, a peaceful crowd numbering well over 60,000 assembled to see the radical politician Henry Hunt demand universal suffrage. Soldiers charged the crowd on horseback, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds. The Peterloo massacre, as it became known, inspired Shelley's poem "The Masque of Anarchy", with its exhortation to "Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number!".

It seemed as if his call had been heeded a decade later when, in 1831, after the House of Lords voted against the Reform Bill, British cities erupted in violence. Nottingham Castle was burned to the ground and gangs of men armed with muskets took over the streets of Bristol. In 1839, the first wave of the Chartist movement came close to resulting in a general strike, as the campaign's leaders debated whether to call a "national holiday" if their petition to parliament was rejected.

But it is the story of the suffragettes, who achieved the greatest extension of democracy in Britain's history, that shows the crucial role direct action can play in a protest movement. In 1908, well over a quarter of a million women attended a London rally, wearing ribbons with the purple, white and green colours of the Women's Social and Political Union. Sylvia Pankhurst later described it as "the ­greatest meeting ever known"; yet it was only one face of a long campaign that included other, more contentious forms of activism.

The suffragette Margaret Thomas recounted in her autobiography of 1933 how militancy "had come like a draught of fresh air into our lives. It gave us release of energy, it gave us that sense of being some use in the scheme of things, without which no human being can live in peace. It made us feel we were part of life, not just watching it . . . It gave us hope of freedom and power and opportunity . . . nothing can stop this movement."

This is not to promote violence as a preferred political solution. In 1968, during an earlier era of student radicalism, the cultural critic Raymond Williams drew parallels with the Victorian era. In his essay "A Hundred Years of Culture and Anarchy", Williams recounted the outrage that followed the ­violence that erupted after an attempt in July 1866 by the Reform League, which campaigned for the right of working-class men to vote, to hold a demonstration in Hyde Park in London.

A crowd of 60,000 workers converged on Marble Arch, only to find the gates of the park locked and guarded by police. Most of the demonstrators trudged reluctantly off to Trafalgar Square, but a smaller group stayed behind and ripped up the park railings. The rioters reportedly trampled flower­beds, "raced over the forbidden turf" and threw stones at houses in upper-class Belgravia.

Many liberal observers at the time were ­horrified. Matthew Arnold, the poet and lit­erary critic, encouraged harsh action against the Hyde Park rioters. The government, he said, had a duty to repress "anarchy and disorder; ­because without order there can be no society; and without society there can be no human perfection".

Yet what Williams argued in his essay was that the intellectual sleight of hand practised by critics of direct action is to overlook or obscure the root causes of public anger. In the current context, it is notable that David Cameron, fresh from a trip to China where he had been piously preaching human rights (although not to the extent that it might sour trade relations), made no significant comment on the Millbank occupation until a group of lecturers from Goldsmiths College in south London praised the "magnificent" demonstration. Their transgression, which brought swift condemnation from Downing Street, was to point out that "the real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts." As Williams wrote: "The attachment to reason, to informed argument, to considered public decisions . . . requires something more than an easy rhetorical contrast with the practices of demonstration and direct action."

End of the party

The point, for Williams, was not to celebrate disorder for its own sake, but to show how protest has become necessary at "those points where truth and reason and argument were systematically blocked".

Have we reached that point once again? Or does recent history teach us how easily politicians ignore popular protest? After all, Tony Blair was able blithely to disregard the two ­million who marched against the Iraq war in 2003. And while the anti-capitalist protests that have been a feature of the past decade have gathered large crowds, they have been marked by a strangely weightless, carnivalesque feel; a celebration of a cause without any real political dir­ection, which the critic Mark Fisher has described as "feelgood feelbad".

The stereotype that Britons don't really "do" protests is just that - a stereotype. But it exists for a reason. Since Margaret Thatcher's assault on organised labour in the 1980s, and her deliberate destruction of the industries that fed the unions, protest has been neutered. This has gone hand in hand with a reigning ideology that there is "no alternative" to the neoliberal economics that led us to the financial crash of 2008. In the words of the US theorist Fredric Jameson, we have been living through a time in which it has seemed easier "to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism".

University reform is a clear example of this ideological straitjacket. It was initiated by a Labour government and is now being carried through by the Conservatives, with the help of the Liberal Democrats, a party that won votes and seats on a clear pledge to oppose it.

However, as a political activist who was one of the first through the door at Millbank described it to me, 10 November was a "game changer". Before the protest, even commentators on the centre-left, such as the Guardian's Polly Toynbee, had dismissed in advance the students as "middle class" and their plight insignificant in comparison to the devastation that is about to befall benefit claimants. Now, even the right recognises that the attack on Millbank was about more than just increases in tuition fees. Writing in the London Evening Standard the day after the protest, the pro-cuts financial columnist Chris Blackhurst warned that the increasing gap between rich and poor in Britain was stoking popular fury. "The temperature is rising all the time," he wrote. "Already, we've had strikes from the Tube drivers and firefighters, and now students are taking to the streets. More groups are likely to follow suit . . . Disturbingly, the scene is set for more yesterdays. The police will undoubtedly be better prepared. But that is not to say there won't be trouble or that the rage is going to disappear."

Those on the right of the Labour Party have no doubt watched this story unfold with disgust. They will see it as a return to the early 1980s, when the left was wiped out electorally, despite the anger at Thatcher's reforms. But this is not the 1980s: unlike Thatcher, the coalition cannot buy popular support with the sell-off of council houses or public utilities.

After ­almost ten years of slaughter in Afghan­istan and Iraq, there is much less appetite for Falklands-style jingoism. The huge personal wealth of the current cabinet makes Cameron's insistence that "we're all in this together" ring hollow. As Fisher wrote recently, that slogan "may turn out to be a phrase that comes to haunt the Tories in the way that 'Labour isn't working' dogged Labour for a generation . . . cuts of this kind being forced through by a cabinet of aristocrats and millionaires make brutally apparent a class antagonism that the New Labour government obfuscated. Whenever the ruling class tells us that 'we're all on the same side', it is a sure sign that we can hurt them."

Rather than dismissing protesters as "Trots" and "anarchists", as Caroline Flint did on Question Time, the Labour Party should seek to give a parliamentary voice to this discontent. As for the anti-cuts movement, what it needs is unity and the recognition that a range of tactics, including protests, strikes and direct action, will be necessary. The president of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, who days before the Millbank occupation had declared his support for direct action, has since wavered and condemned the occupation as "despicable". What he and others who are unsure about the correct way to fight the cuts should ask themselves is: would anyone have cared about the demonstration otherwise?

Daniel Trilling is deputy culture editor of the New Statesman