Driving the new wave of protests in England especially is a
generational divide that is economic and cultural: the system traded
on the alienation of the young from it but it was never mere
passivity and now it started to erupt.
12th December 2010
Protest and rebellion are in the air. Those well-known songs of
radical chic, 'Revolution' and 'Power to the People' have been
regularly played on radio and TV; at the same time, red flags,
anarchist slogans and student occupations have suddenly appeared on
streets and university campuses.
The first marked the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's assassination,
which happened this Wednesday past; the second saw the emergence of a
mass student protest movement against tuition fees. Some of this may
evoke John Lennon and 1968, but the more relevant comparison is with
those other mass protests against Conservative Governments: the
1979-81 discontent against mass unemployment, and 1990 opposition to
the poll tax.
Something significant is changing in British politics which goes
beyond tuition fees; there is the campaign of the UK Uncut 
movement against tax avoidance by leading UK companies such as
Vodafone and Sir Philip Green's Arcadia Group. This touches on how
young people are seen in our political system, issues and tensions
between the generations, and how our politics understands this.
The mainstream political view emphasises the democratic disconnection
of young people, and in particular 18-24 year olds who have low
turnout levels at UK general elections.
Yet our politics and political system systematically stigmatises and
demonises large numbers of young people. Instead, it increasingly
focuses on older people who vote more and issues of concern to them
such as council tax levels and care for the elderly. The Lib Dems
pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees at the last election
was the only major youth-orientated policy by any of the major
parties. In a sea of grey-haired policies, that is one reason why it
stood out so much.
The political debate on tuition fees has focused on both sides on
'fairness', but what is underneath this is the issue of
inter-generational fairness and responsibility.
Many of the young people protesting are showing a sense of wider
citizenship and responsibility and concern for the fate of future
generations which should shame our politicians. They are taking a
stand which isn't just about themselves, but the compact which is
meant to exist across the generations, and against the
commercialisation of higher education.
Our political class and the baby boomer generation don't understand
this with their short-term, selfish thinking. Strangely enough the
most coherent critique of this baby boomer entitlement culture has
come from David Willetts' 'The Pinch', published just before the
This is a thoughtful, studious book which makes the case that the
baby boomer generation those born between 1945 and 1965 have in
Willetts words 'stolen their children's future' and built a cultural,
demographic and political dominance which disfigures our society. The
narcissistic, self-obsessed, sophistic attitude of this generation
personified by the personal politics of aggrandisement of people such
as Tony Blair works against younger people. Willetts is now
Minister for Universities and Science, and strangely now silent on
these huge issues.
Much of this springs from how we do our politics. Our political
system increasingly excludes young people, while politicians more and
more articulate a political language, values and philosophy which
focuses on older voters.
The consequences of this for all the Conservative-Lib Dem Government
warm talk of caring about pre-school years, tackling
inter-generational poverty, and social mobility, is a widening
generational and social divide which goes to the very heart of what
kind of society we live in.
Increasingly the direction of politics across the Western world point
to young people becoming less and less optimistic about the future.
Research by Richard Eckersley funded by Australian Government showed
that there is a direct relationship between the way politicians and
institutional opinion talk about globalisation and young people's
hopes and fears.
The constant talk of globalisation as inevitable and an over-powering
leviathan increasingly leads to young people feeling hopeless,
powerless, and believing they have no say in their future. And this
has a direct effect on young people's self-esteem, confidence and
Fortunately, large numbers of young people increasingly question and
challenge this state of affairs. They more and more see a version of
the world and the future being presented to them which is
increasingly remote, economic determinist, and focused on a narrow
slither of elites and winners.
It is true that there have been some violent elements in the student
protest movement, but most of it is peaceful. Much more of it is
characterised by being spontaneous, self-organised and fluid, using
social media to creates new forms of protest like flashmobs. This is
a very different kind of politics from the traditional left form of
protest last seen during the anti-Iraq war movement which
entailed marching the troops along the same route week in week out to
the same designation and a concluding rally involving the usual suspects.
There is as serious a set of issues facing the Metropolitan Police
and how they manage and deal with protest. This is a force which has
at crucial points got things fundamentally wrong: as in the tragic
deaths of Jean Charles De Menezes and Ian Tomlinson. The police have
to work with protestors and recognise the right to dissent.
Beyond the coalition and fate of the Lib Dems and even tuition fees,
the new protest movements mark a watershed for our politics.
Can a political system which has narrowed and become arrogant and
insular, learn that it is part of the problem? Unless we can embrace
a wholesale transformation of our tarnished democracy, changing it to
one which listens and understands young people, we are heading for trouble.
The British political system once worked in the middle of the last
century when we had two political parties giving voice and
representation to two classes. This can no longer be said. It has
become fixated in a fragmented, divided, insecure society on those
who have the most status, assets and inheritance and made their
self-interests into a worldview and ideology. And it has come to
disregard those who don't fit into it or challenge this perspective.
This is a generational and social chasm and divide which British
politics and society needs to urgently face. We need to listen to the
voices of the young people on our streets. The alternative is an
increasingly harsh, nasty future, and one shaped by a new era of
politics which becomes more and more aggressive, confrontational, and
shaped by even more heavy handed action by the police and state.