Nick Evans reviews a new oral history of Britain’s 2010 youth uprising against fees and EMA cuts.
“It’s just a point in a line of history, but for me it’s absolutely the beginning. It’s point zero.”
“For me, Millbank was about collective power.”
“Look. Tomorrow and the day after a lot of people are going to be saying: ‘it means this’ or ‘it means that’, or, ‘we should be in charge’ or whatever – from the Socialist Workers Party to the Whitechapel Anarchist Group. Don’t listen to them; it was you lot that did it you know…”
Advice given to James Butler
“We organised the demonstration through a fake Facebook account for the stray cat that walked through school called Humphrey… The novelty cat Facebook account is suddenly saying ‘f–– it guys, let’s bunk school’.”
“As we neared the point where announcements about the policy needed to be made, it became clear that the students were going to react very badly.”
“I was like: ‘No, that’s not the way things are supposed to happen, that’s not the way the world works. When people say no, it’s supposed to be no.’”
It was all over very quickly. The movement first hit the headlines with the storming of the Tory HQ in Millbank on 10 November 2010. There was an intense month of walk-outs, street battles and occupations. Then on 9 December, a majority of MPs voted for tuition fee rises and the cutting of the Education Maintenance Allowance, dealing “a critical blow” to the movement.
We now have a history of that month, told through the words of people who were there. School or university students give their memories alongside the architects of the policy, Vince Cable and David Willetts. Matt Myers, a school student at the time, wrote this book so that: “Students can now speak back to power where they had previously been kept out in the cold.”
It is tempting to reflect on the relationship of the 2010 student movement to Corbynism. Is the turn to electoral politics partly a response to the limitations of the 2010 movement? Does it set us up for future disappointments? The approach taken by this book is simply to recognise that many of the young people active both inside and outside the Labour Party have been shaped by the autumn of 2010, and to try to recover that collective experience.
Here, alongside those more embedded in activist networks or with more public profiles, we have the voices of people who have since fallen out of political activity. Breaking out of the “ghettoisation of experience” is essential not only to a truthful account of an important moment in recent history, but also to building social movements for change in the future.
Others will draw their own lessons, but here are three things that I took from the accounts collected here.
The first is the significance of the revolt: “one of the most radical in British history”. I realised how many people, myself included, have been changed by autumn 2010. At the time I was a final year undergraduate. I’d taken part in an occupation of university buildings during the 2009 Israeli assault on Gaza, but we’d been a miniscule minority. From early in the term in autumn 2010, far larger numbers were being radicalised. We had mass meetings. Vince Cable was supposed to be visiting Oxford on 28 October – two weeks before Millbank. Police warned him not to come, but a thousand students marched through the city anyway. (Vince Cable claims he doesn’t remember it. We do.) This book reminded me of how overwhelming those weeks were. It was my first experience of a mass movement.
The second is the context of police repression. Student Revolt brought back memories of the horses, the dogs and the cold on Westminster Bridge on the night of 9 December, as I tried to find two school students from Oxford who had been left behind in the kettle; their bus had already gone. The book also brings out the divergent expectations of police violence. For some it came as a shock, for others it came as part of their everyday reality. This shaped the different ways people saw the autumn 2010 revolt and the summer 2011 riots – brilliantly analysed here by Shereen Prasad.
Thirdly, we get insights into how the other side thought. Vince Cable did not think the government was ever going to lose the vote, and if they did, “then the policy would have been reworked” anyway. According to David Willetts, the Tories were actually quite surprised that the Lib Dems “got sucked into” supporting the fee rises. Cable claims the NUS “knew that politically they had to make a fuss, but they weren’t persuaded it was something terrible”. Meanwhile, Aaron Porter (NUS President at the time) said he’d agreed with those who had told him “don’t waste your time” with demonstrations.
It didn’t occur to any of these men that what young people wanted actually mattered, and they were outraged when young people took to the streets to show that it did. The few politicians like Corbyn, McDonnell and Lucas who actively supported the students stand out. One interviewee remembers a moment where the riot police prepared to attack and John McDonnell sat down with the protestors: “the police were like: ‘whoa – that’s an MP’… they turned tail”.
The interviews and photographs in Student Revolt recapture the hopes, anxieties and also some of the fun of 2010 – from Humphrey the Cat who led a school walkout in Buckingham, to the woman who tricked The Times into printing her name as a legendary Palestinian revolutionary (“Leila Khaled, 22, a student at the University of Essex”). We need more books like this. And we need another revolt.
Matt Myers, Student Revolt. Voices of the Austerity Generation, London, Pluto, 2017, £12.99.