“They’re all a bunch of twats,” is how one Politics student described student protestors to me the other day. These are the words of a well-informed and politically minded undergraduate. The media-propagated caricature of students en bloc as militant anarchists, rediscovering the anti-establishment vigour of their predecessors, is, then, not wholly accurate. There is a silent majority.
Don’t get me wrong. Protests are an essential feature of a functioning democracy. As a manifestation of public dissent, as a medium of participation in civil society and as an indication that the preferences of the populace may have been misread or ignored. Indeed, simply by being permitted to take place, they are a sign that things are basically okay. Basic rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, are being protected. And so on and so forth. Our cuddly liberal inclinations are aligned here.
But, compare and contrast: the self-immolation of courageous Tunisian fruit-seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, despairing at his patently unjust treatment by a repressive regime; a roaming mob of clueless youths gleefully committing petty crime in the centre of London. The former, an inspiring paragon of self-sacrifice, a man shorn of self-respect, whose rights had been repeatedly violated, attempting to draw attention to an unjust political system. The latter, a gang providing an utterly unedifying spectacle, imbued with the cheap thrill of law-breaking, blissfully ignorant but less-than-blissfully ignorant of this fact, purporting to be furthering lofty goals, but unable to explain quite how.
It goes without saying that this not a fair portrayal of all student protestors. The vast majority take part in peaceful activities that command broad support. But they are not blameless either. Very few justify their actions in a way that is not short-sighted or partial. Instead of thinking ‘because of X,Y and Z, protesting would be the morally right thing to do’, the actions of many boil down to ‘this sounds like fun’, or ‘everyone else is doing it, so why not?’. Merely by virtue of being a student protest, moreover, almost all of those taking part will be doing so blindly. Blindly, in the sense that they do not know what they are doing or why, and, worse, they couldn’t possibly know if what they are doing is right or wrong. Protest is a way of expressing one’s discontent with the policies of the government; very few people are qualified to make such a judgement and no student is going be among them. The knowledge, wisdom, experience and judgement necessary are just not possessed by anyone still at university.
Nor, indeed, by any recent graduate. Thom Costello, not long ago a student at Oxford and living proof that intelligence is no guarantee of sound judgement, is now the leader of UK Uncut, an organisation which facilitates protests against government cuts and tax avoidance by large corporations. It has become emblematic of student activism and appears to be treated with sympathy by many. During the student protests last year, the organisation distanced itself from the pacifying noises emanating from Aaron Porter, then President of the NUS. In response to a statement by the latter criticising the violence, Mr. Costello tweeted: “Shut up Aaron Porter you dickhead.” While the English scholar seemingly momentarily misplaced his wit, the sentiment was clear. Certainly, the ubiquity of tax avoidance is lamentable. The practice borders on the immoral, the difference between a business evading and avoiding tax generally depending on how expensive an accountant it can afford. But we live in a capitalist society. Businesses maximise profit. The government taxes them within a framework of regulations. If they manage to get around these, then the government should just try harder. Tax reform is a sensible political goal. But civil disobedience is not called for.
Mohamed Bouazizi was confronted with clear and egregious injustice. We are not. Neither the government cuts nor the raising of tuition fees constitute reasons for civil disobedience. Economic and political arguments can be offered why the government shouldn’t be pursuing its current course, but none of these entail the violation of rights or dereliction of duties. There is no right to a cheap degree. Indeed, there is no right to tertiary education, period. We are fortunate to have a system of loans and bursaries, that mean some don’t pay anything at all, while all others gradually pay it back when they can, allowing us all to attend exceptional academic institutions. There can be no complaints on grounds of justice here.
That is not to say that there are no banners under which students may march. The likelihood that the UK wilfully ignores torture, the illegal war in Iraq and the refusal to condemn human rights abuses by our allies are all clear cases of the state acting unjustly. One does not need to have a lifetime of contemplation under one’s belt to complain about these. If it came out, for instance, that the government had been carrying extra-judicial assassinations of the leaders of subversive political groups, then, again, anyone and everyone should be out on the streets. But these, as far as we know, are not going on. The government is cutting back, marginally, services which are, compred to both the past and other countries, superlatively generous. This is no cause for civil disobedience.
Lobby your MPs by all means. But don’t go around pushing biscuits off the shelves of Fortnum and Mason. For a start, it’s a bit rubbish, as civil disobedience goes. Find a worthier cause and do it properly.