Let’s talk about real vandalism: Laurie Penny on the social injustice of our government

Some forms of vandalism (like students breaking a window) are easy to condemn, but others are more destructive.

A hundred years ago, a gang of mostly middle-class protesters, tired of being overlooked by successive administrations, decided to smash up some government buildings to make their point. Their leader insisted that, when the state holds itself unanswerable to the people, "the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics". That leader was Emmeline Pankhurst and the protesters were the suffragettes.

This month, the young people of Britain appeared to reach a similar breaking point. Feeling that they no longer had a voice or a stake in the political process - that their votes were worthless if the parties they had supported were so willing to break their manifesto pledges - they took to the streets and launched a furious attack on Tory HQ, smashing glass and dropping banners from the roof. Property damage, it seems, is still the last resort of citizens whose leaders put the interests of private property above those of the people.

Like the suffragettes, the students and schoolchildren who tore into the bottom storey of 30 Millbank have found themselves subject to a media smear campaign, dismissed as savage and feral. This equates violence against persons - which was mercifully avoided, thanks to the poor aim of the one idiot who decided to drop a fire extinguisher - with damage to private property, which some might deem a perfectly legitimate response to a government that has just taken a wrecking ball to the life chances of the young.

Pankhurst would certainly have agreed with the Millbank protesters. "There is something that governments care for far more than human life and that is the security of property," she said. "And it is through property that we shall strike the enemy."

The press condemned the “tens of thousands of pounds" of damage caused to the Millbank lobby and called for arrests. Only a few, however, drew attention to any equivalence with the tens of thousands of pounds that have just been billed to everyone who wishes to attend college or university from 2012.

False promises

Tory HQ is owned by the Reuben brothers, prominent party donors whose fortune totals some £5bn. Insurance will cover what, to the Reubens, must seem a relatively puny loss. But the young people who have just seen their security, their society and their dreams of a better future torn away from them by politicians who were elected on a promise to do the precise opposite do not have any sort of insurance to fall back on.

Some forms of vandalism are easy to condemn. The antisocial furniture-and-window breakage of today's student protesters had an excellent model in the loutishly methodical property destruction of the Bullingdon Club, the exclusive Oxford drinking club to which the current Prime Minister and many of his cronies belonged in their own, entirely state-funded university days. On the other hand, there is the kind of vandalism that is so huge and so unspeakable that it is not even considered a crime anymore. It's illegal to smash up someone's lobby, but it's perfectly legal to smash up someone's future.

From the moment we had language, most of us learned that life was a list of things that we weren't allowed to break: rules, windows, political settlements. The rich, of course, can break all with impunity. The students who walked blithely away from breaking windows with the Bullingdon boys are now the most powerful men in the country and they have few qualms about shattering welfare and education into tiny pieces.

Sources on the ground have suggested that the Millbank protests are just the beginning. If one values social justice above private property, this can only be a good thing. Perhaps it's time that the country began a concerted effort to hold the centre right to account for its vandalism of civil society.

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 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron