Whether France in 1968 or in Burma today, no one in Western society needs to be convinced of the power that students’ movements can have. An interesting article over at my flatmate’s girlfriend’s blog has provoked some thoughts on just that.
The article in question is an interview with Ko Aung, a former student activist and political refugee here in the United Kingdom. It bears particular relevance at the moment because of the renewed role which students are taking in the massive protests against Burma’s dictatorial junta.
What has stirred my grey matter into action doesn’t extend beyond the first paragraph of the article by Tamsin (which is the name of my flatmate’s girlfriend and the author). Pretty explicitly my thoughts are directed at these few sentences:
“In Burma when the military seized power in 1962 one of their first acts was to dynamite the main Student’s Union building… For us, protesting is part of being a student. But would you dare to protest if you knew that you would end up in jail? If it led to your family and friends being persecuted? That is the situation for students in Burma.”
One assumption requires challenging. For us, in the UK, does protesting continue to be an integral part of university education? That it should be is not in question – universities should be an education in many more things than simply the subject concerned by one’s choice of degree pathway.
The most obvious case of recent protest would be top-up fees, or, less explicitly concerning students, the Iraq War or the Israeli-Lebanon conflict. In all of these cases students took to the streets. So far as top-up fees are concerned, students across the country took part in protests and some in the planning and executing the occupation of university property as part of their protest.
At Oxford, several years before my time, the then President of OUSU and her soon-to-be successor led a veritable troop of students to occupy the ancient Bodleian Library. Clearly student protest has not died – but we should remember that Oxbridge examples are the exception rather than the rule. Oxford and Cambridge tend to accumulate the most active students by virtue of being such prestigious universities.
The flip-side are places like Queen’s University, Belfast. At the height of the top up fees movement, only some three hundred students out of a population of twelve thousand could be found on a Wednesday afternoon (when no classes are scheduled) to form a march from Queen’s Students’ Union to the centre of Belfast. This was despite weeks of preparation on the part of the QUBSU executive.
The point I am meandering towards is this; most students don’t care about protests and activism. In fact, quite the reverse of the article mentioned above, the level of student activism seems proportionally linked to the level of opposition to that activism. Whether in Burma in the 1970’s or today, in Northern Ireland during the Civil Rights / Peoples’ Democracy movement or in France in 1968, the level of opposition to student activism was astonishing.
To put things into perspective so as to ensure against cheapening the struggle in Burma, student activists could be shot by the military in Burma or imprisoned virtually indefinitely.
In Northern Ireland, many members of the police, though out of uniform, banded together with loyalist mobs and armed with bricks, bats, bottles and iron bars brought their own oppression to the streets of a small portion of Western Europe. The uniformed members of the police largely stood by and watched.
In Paris something similar was faced, with de Gaulle ordering student protests quashed, leading to street battles in the Rive Gauche and across France.
Yet in Northern Ireland, the Stormont government and with it the Protestant-Unionist ascendancy was smashed, in France de Gaulle was brought tumbling down as a million workers and students declared a general strike…and in Burma a question mark still remains.
Today, the British government can shrug its shoulders and with that, the student movement has automatically lost the battle, as it has with regard to top up fees. The sweeping tide of apathy claims more victims than police oppression. The quintessentially English view of the Bobby on the street remains unyielding even in the face of evidence much to the contrary.
The police powers introduced to combat the Miners’ Strike, CND, anti-Apartheid movements and hippies ultimately culminated in the Battle of Trafalgar Square but this was not enough to have those powers removed, despite bringing down the poll tax. Students were involved in all of those causes, some to a substantial degree. The student occupation outside the naval-nuclear base at Faslane has not prevented the plans for the renewal of Trident – and the Bishops are on the side of the students in that case.
The students in Burma are struggling for something which is fundamental to all other freedoms; the right to organise, freedom of association. On this, even free speech ultimately depends. What unifying goal is there to unite students from across diverse backgrounds in the United Kingdom? Or in the rest of Western Europe?
The level of activism dictates the response; the greater the activism, the greater the response, once you factor in the societal traditions involved. For example, the leadership of democratic France is unlikely to order soldiers to open fire against protesters without extreme provocation. For this reason the opposition to student activism is so great on the part of the Burmese dictatorship.
An old adage of Orwell comes to mind; totalitarianism never had any such weapon against the masses as the so-called free press. A cage with gilt bars is still a cage.
A lacklustre performance on the part of O’Driscoll and the boys in green at Parc des Princes has seen Ireland fall to a 30-15 defeat which virtually everyone expected. Opponents Argentina now go through to play Scotland in the quarter finals.
I think the crushing defeat at the hands of France already sealed Ireland’s fate; 25-3 isn’t a loss, it’s an annihilation where Ireland is concerned. O’Gara’s up-and-unders just didn’t cut it for the side which embarrassed England during the Six Nations.
Others may disagree but I’d say Shane Horgan takes “Man of the Campaign” award for his sheer stopping power. It just wasn’t enough this time.
Better luck next time.
I’ve blogged on the subject of Sayeeda Warsi, Conservative Community Cohesion spokeswoman, before but now she is back in the news and continuing her worrying trend of justifying the political extremism of the BNP. Having told the Sunday Times that immigration is out of control, Warsi is now facing rebellion even from those groups of which she was formerly a member, including Operation Black Vote.
Warsi has replied,
“I was talking about people who have been duped into voting for the British National Party because they feel that some of the concerns they are wanting to talk about are not being dealt with by the mainstream political parties.”
The underlying point that she makes by such a comment is that people are voting for the BNP because their concerns are not being addressed by mainstream parties. Mainstream parties, to remedy the situation, should address the concerns of such people. We can add this to Warsi’s comments about “out of control” immigration and to the policies of her own party – policies to which she wholeheartedly subscribes.
As a result, we should should be left in no doubt that by “tackling” the concerns of such people, Warsi feels we should crack down on immigration.
The assumption which underpins Warsi’s logic is the same as that which underpins the logic of the BNP – and thus people are right to denounce her for giving a platform to that sort of reasoning. Her assumption is that in order to address concerns, one cannot simply look at the positive aspects of immigration and argue that the people attacking immigration are wrong. Her assumption is that the concern is a valid one and must be tackled by imposing yet more stringent legislation on immigration.
That is exactly what the BNP say.
This should not be a surprise to the eagle-eyed follower of politics however. This is the same Sayeeda Warsi who sent Muslim voters pictures of Bush and Blair covered in blood along with denouncements of the Iraq War, but to white voters sent leaflets covered in a British flag and denouncing immigration policies. If ever there was a party to use the race card as an electoral weapon it is the Conservatives.
They’ve simply become more insidious about it since the days of Powell’s rising tide speech and Monday Club collaboration with fascists.
Following my short piece on the Purnell photograph, I discovered planted among a couple of BBC articles a few more comments from senior Conservatives which really show what pillocks they all are.
My favourite one was this, from William Hague:
“Clearly they’re thinking in the Labour Party that if they don’t have an election soon, then Brown will be rumbled, and people will be fed up with him in very short order.”
I know an awful lot of Labour Party members and not one of them is thinking anything like that. If Mr Hague had put his thoughts to a Labour supporter, the more likely answer would be “Oh please not an early election, our constituency parties are still putting their finances together so we can kick your arse from here to Tunbridge Wells.”
It seems like testosterone overdrive. Young Dave is clearly thinking with bodily utensils used to a different form of activity. His comment that Brown has, “got himself into a position where he either bottles it or he has given us a hell of a lot of notice of his intentions“ made me chuckle. Anyone with a brain can see that the election is going to happen between now and next Christmas – and the only times for that are spring and autumn.
Better even than that however was Cameron’s claim to get aggressive with people on job-seekers allowance who refused work. I suppose that’s alright for him since those people are unlikely to vote Tory in a month of Sundays. Just to examine his claim of being tough on lazy people however, this is Cameron saying that unless qualified drill technicians (for example) agree to work in Burger King, that they’ll have their job-seekers allowance slashed by Cameron. Brilliant!
Mind you, dear Ed Balls is hardly the sharpest tool in the box with his replies that Cameron can’t show where the money for all this is going to come from. Half of what Cameron wants to do is slash government expenditure or levy new taxes – the airline tax and the cutting of job-seekers allowance are just two examples. Come on people, we’re wittier than that.
Cameron says that we’d better have an election…or else! Oh no, what’s he going to do? Invade parliament with his mob of Oxford Union members? Crivens! Hide the port!
I was watching the film Bulworth this evening and I think it provides an interesting and fruitful subject for discussion. Written by Warren Beatty, who also plays the title role, it traces the last few days in the life of fictional California Senator Jay Billington Bulworth. Bankrupt and looking like he will succumb to a primary challenge, the Senator takes out a massive insurance policy with an insurance executive by promising to keep an insurance regulatory bill in committee. Bulworth then takes out a contract on his own life.
A lack of sleep, lack of food, a failed marriage, a couple of joints and a general miasma surrounding his life help Bulworth to shake off his previous persona and become a charismatic, rapping white boy who decides to stand up for the American people against insurance tricksters, big oil and the corruption of the media and political parties. All in all, it’s a good show – by turns moving and amusing. I’ve included one of my favourite rhymes, which Bulworth sings during an interview.
I wonder how the audiences that saw it in the cinema received it, whether in the USA or here. Probably many of them laughed and then dismissed it – and it is easy to do so. Though a biting satire, that a dyed-in-the-wool Senator would suddenly decide to support a lot of populist causes is unlikely. That a two-bit gun-and-drug gang boss would suddenly arrange for his posse to clean up the ‘hood’ because of the charm and righteousness of a Senator is equally unlikely.
There are a bundle of relevant messages contained within the film however. It answers those who claim the days of socialism and powerful trade unions are gone by pointing out that the working classes are too busy looking for jobs to produce the leaders of old. Though old fashioned insofar as “state control” is seen as a better alternative than the profiteering private sector, it still makes a clear case that “private sector efficiency” is largely a myth. In the UK, with millions of pounds worth of government subsidies poured into many supposedly private ventures, we’re in need of that particular message.
Set during the ’96 primary campaigns, the film points out through one rap that the Democrats would pay for deindustrialisation in the ghettoes. That is also something we’d do well to listen to over here, with our increasing gun crime in urban centres.
The film is an old one and I first saw it at “socialist summer camp” at Portlaois in the Republic of Ireland. The Socialist Party had rented a hotel and invited a bunch of Green Party figures and Anarchists and others on the left to come and debate “left alternatives” with the usual crew from the SP, while the Socialist Party Youth observed and chimed in occasionally. We watched that on the Saturday night and upon the line, “let’s hear that dirty word now…socialism!” everyone cheered.
I think, for me, that is the final message of the film. Politics requires its own culture – and that’s something we’ve lost in the British labour movement. Where are the steelworker’s reading groups and the Miner’s colliery bands? Probably out looking for jobs with the would-be great left wing leaders.
Anyway, to end on a better note, here’s that rap I mentioned.
The rich is getting richer and richer and richer
While the middle class is getting more poor
Making billions and billions and billions of bucks
Well my friend if you weren’t already rich at the start then that situation just sucks
Cause the richest mother fucker in five of us is getting ninety fuckin’ eight percent of it
And every other motherfucker in the world is left to wonder where the fuck we went with it.
I’m a Senator
I gotta raise $10,000 a day every day I’m in Washington
I ain’t getting it in South Central
I’m gettin’ it in Beverly Hills
So I’m votin’ from them in the Senate the way they want me too
and-and-and I’m sending them my bills.
But we got babies in South Central dying as young as they do in Peru,
We got public schools that are nightmares,
We got a Congress that ain’t got a clue,
We got kids with submachine guns.
We got militias throwing bombs,
We got Bill just gettin’ all weepy,
We got Newt blaming teenage moms,
We got factories closing down.
Where the hell did all the good jobs go? Well, I’ll tell you where they went
My contributors make more profits makin’, makin’, makin’, Hirin’ kids in Mexico.
Oh a brother can work in fast food
If he can’t invent computer games.
But what we used to call America
That’s going down the drains.
How’s a young man gonna meet his financial responsibilities workin’ and motherfuckin’ Burger King? He ain’t! And please don’t even start with that school shit.
There aint no education going on up in that motherfucker.
We got a million brothers in prison.
I mean, the walls are really rockin’
But you can bet your ass they’d all be out
If they could pay for Johnny Cochrane.
The constitution is supposed to give them an equal chance
Well, that ain’t gonna happen for sure.
Ain’t it time to take a little from the rich motherfucker and give a little to the poor? I mean, those boys over there on the monitor
they want a government smaller and weak
but the be speakin’ for the richest 20 percent when they pretend they’re defendin’ the meek
Now, shit, fuck, cocksucker, that’s the real obscenity.
Black folks livin with every day
Trying to believe a motherfuckin word Democrats and Republicans say
I’m Jay Billington Bulworth
And I’ve come to say
The Democratic party’s got some shit to pay
It’s gonna pay it in the ghetto.
–Warren Beatty and Jeremy Pisker, Screenwriters
Having just read over the story in the Manchester Evening News about Culture Secretary James Purnell and the “fake photograph” I have come to conclude that Purnell should stay in his job and tell the Conservatives to take a long walk off a short pier.
Following the photograph incident, in which Purnell – some say unwittingly – had himself doctored into a picture at Tameside hospital, Conservative Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, demanded that Purnell apologise and resign.
Let me see if I understand this correctly; for having himself inserted into a photograph which about six people were ever going to pay attention to, which wasn’t to be used in campaign material and which was taken at the site in question anyway with just some few hours remove from the original, a Cabinet minister should resign.
I think the Conservative shadow Culture secretary should get a life.
The media has been making a lot out of the possibility of a snap election, since Labour have been lining up PR companies and campaign managers and such like. Inevitably, the journalists have thought about the obverse of that particular coin; whether or not the Conservatives are ready to make their case to the nation.
Yet between the lines, for those in the know, the Tories have already outlined their “alternative” for Britain. It doesn’t look good. Particularly revealing over the last few weeks has been Wigan-boss Dave Whelan’s decision to donate £1 million to the Tories because of his view that Labour have failed to adequately deal with law and order.
Judging by the reasons for Whelan’s support for the Conservatives, a Tory government will set about building new prisons and introducing draconian measures to arrest and imprison those caught with knives or guns about their person.
Given that we have the highest prison population our country has ever had, I’m not entirely sure such measures are likely to have the effect the Tories think it will. This is not to say that Labour are doing everything right, but the usual Tory response to crime is to impose higher sentencing laws, which, more often than not, the judiciary resents.
Other things that have been mooted in this regard are bans on violent video games. Cameron has also mentioned that the plans to incentivise couples staying together will help reduce crime. Not to pour water on the poor chap – he is a fellow Brasenoser – but a return to 1950’s restrictions on freedom of speech and encouraging women to stay with men for the sake of money a happy family will not make.
It’s not like Labour is asleep at the wheel, despite their occasional authoritarian knee-jerk reaction to Sun headlines. Operation Trident, in London, is a good example of a well-thought out Labour response. Aimed at the black community – from whence an estimated 75% of gun crimes originate so the Trident website claims – it goes into schools, to young people’s groups and it promotes public vigilance and awareness. It is led by the Metropolitan police with communities involved through the Trident Independent Advisory Group.
Law and order isn’t the only thing we should be worrying about with regard to Cameron and his ilk. The usual rhetoric on the NHS, choice, more out-of-hours care etc, masks the desire to further establish a market in the health service – and recently the BMA has blasted the Tories for “ill informed” policies. On the environment too, one only need look past Cameron’s headline grabbing policies to what local councils are doing and where the Tories are concerned, in non-marginal areas, the answer is “not much.”
Ultimately, as ever, the Tories will be better funded than Labour. Worryingly, the Conservatives also continue to have more members, with about 300,000 members to Labour’s 200,000. The effects of this are clearly visible, since the leadership seems much more interested in money-led media campaigns than in grassroots activism, particularly where the South East is concerned.
If the membership trend in Labour continues, the party will ultimately be relying on the same backers as the Conservatives. That is to say, wealthy businessmen. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of New Labour. They and their predecessors declared that socialism was dead and that we should try to be where “the country” is on major issues. They stated than unless we moved from the left, we would never win elections.
Though their reasoning may be flawed, if the party continues to haemorrhage members, then we will never win an election again by going to the left – because we’ll cripple ourselves financially by doing so. I look forward to seeing the effects of leadership suggestions on party funding reform over the next few years.
With no few constituencies still without candidates and election agents, Labour is gearing up for battle with the old foe. The question is, will it be enough?