By Gareth Millington
A fascinating photo diary from the 2010 London student protests has recently been posted on the Pluto Press website https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/student-revolt-photo-diary/. The photos, all taken by Patrick O’Brien, depict remarkable scenes from a protest which is now being recognised as pivotal in the resurgence of the left in Britain. Demonstrations were organised to oppose the tripling of student tuition fees and cuts to Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA).
The photo diary appears as an accompaniment to a new oral history book on the protests, published by Pluto and written by Matt Myers, titled Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Movement https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745337340/student-revolt/. I’ve only just received my copy and haven’t had a chance to read the book in its entirety but I am very impressed with what I have read so far. One aspect that interests me is how some protestors viewed the events as a turning or starting point in their political lives. The protests were a Year Zero. For some it was about excitement of emerging from individual isolation and feeling like you were part of something new:
For me, Millbank was about collective power. I had never felt more empowered in my life. When you’re atomised and festering away in your room, thinking about things like climate change or capitalism, and suddenly you find yourself in a group of four thousand people all as angry as you are, taking genuine action, it’s seriously empowering. (Natalie, p. 41)
Others were ‘caught up’ by the times in an event that would have a deep impact on how they came to view their personal relation to politics,
It was a bit surreal as it was my first major protest. That’s the irony of it. The moment had no context for me, because nothing for me had happened before it […] I’d just landed there. Right place, right time, right way sort of thing. It was so profound, radicalising, unifying and formative. It was one of the most important experiences of my life. (Charlotte, p.51)
Some report how friends who had no real understanding of politics felt drawn to the protests because of a gut feeling of injustice that their EMA was to be withdrawn:
My sixth form friends weren’t heavily political. They were deprived people from very mixed areas. They didn’t understand it from the ‘left-right-centre’ political spectrum […] It was an anti-government and anti-police perspective: a street politics perspective. (Arnie, p. 43)
It makes you wonder if (and how) such a street politics developed developed in the years that followed. Were these sixth-form kids also drawn into the 2011 riots? In my view, the book is original and welcome for two main reasons. First, even though the students ostensibly ‘lost’ the battle—i.e. they didn’t manage to successfully halt the Coalition government’s plans to triple fees—Myers’ book does not inhabit that all-too-familiar register of leftish nostalgia or melancholy. Rather, as Myers explains (p.189), ‘[f]ollowing the French socialist Jean Jaurès, tradition should not be viewed as the worship of ashes, but as the preservation of fire’. And the book achieves this, without recourse to sentimentality. As such, it is the after-life of the protests, the radical germ that now gestates way beyond those individuals involved in November 2010, that may be seen as the true measure of their success. Second, and this is a related point, the book doesn’t treat the 2010 protest as a singular event with a neatly demarcated beginning and end. It strikes me that it is ludicrous to judge protests or uprisings in this way (both the Right and Left are susceptible to do this), ignoring the origins and legacy of events and measuring their impact in terms of whether they initiated decisive change within a limited time frame.