The Economist visited us recently to take the temperature of the student movement and see what kind of threat it posed to the bastions of established power. Sniffing the air in the Jeremy Bentham room, the “Bagehot” columnist judged that there’s no reason for them to worry yet as it isn’t quite a “revolution”. The students’ demands, too, were largely misguided, since although £27,000 of debt may seem like a lot to an 18 year old in a depleted jobs market, it isn’t quite so “alarming” to a middle-aged columnist at one of the country’s most prestigious magazines…
From Trafalgar Square I jumped on the Northern Line to UCL to inspect the student occupation of the Jeremy Bentham Room, named after the philosopher (whose straw-stuffed remains are on display nearby). The grand inner courtyard was decked with banners and chalked graffiti: one read “Let’s Shift Some Godamn Paradigms.” After the students had held a brief meeting to decide whether to let me in, I was ushered into the tidiest sit-in in history. There was the neatly labelled “Media” desk at which students tweeted and blogged, and a quiet work area for students on a deadline for tests. There were recycling bins and ordinary bins, timetables on the walls and lists of affiliated protests, and a giant screen for social media announcements. There were photocopied reproductions of 1968 French protest posters, saying things like “Nous sommes le pouvoir”, with English translations helpfully added to the bottom in little capital letters. A sign read: “This is an open space for open people, We’ll have no trouble here.” There was no smoking, no stacks of beer cans. The students all looked pretty fresh: it turned out they were occupying the hall in shifts, so that they could pop home to sleep, attend lectures and keep up with their essays.
Outside in the hall lay a cardboard coffin, labelled Education RIP. Candles and flowers lay strewn around, but also little bits of paper with slogans referring to the Harry Potter novels. What’s with the Harry Potter references, I asked the sit-in organisers? They rolled their eyes: there are some strange people around here, they said. A fresh-faced undergraduate, listening in, burst out: “Well, Harry Potter would be for free education.” Nobody slapped him down.
It would be easy to mock: if this was the revolution, it was not going to be allowed to endanger anyone’s grades. But would violence be worse? And the earnestness was not purely selfish: high on a list of demands for ending the occupation was a call for contract cleaners and support staff at UCL to be paid a higher “living wage” more in line with London living costs.
Back in Trafalgar Square, the least convincing hand-made sign of all read: “1968 revisited? Yes. But we’ll finish the job this time.” On current showing, Britain’s student protestors are as close to revisiting Brideshead as they are 1968, and they are not that close to either. The anger and sense of alienation from party politics is real enough: there is much talk of using technology to create a new democracy. But a revolution, this is not.