Matt Myers: Myth, Memory, and Millbank – The British Student Movement in Perspective

The British student movement of 2010 should warrant little nostalgia. Two years on, fees have tripled; courses have been cut; support has been pulled; and the student movement lies at its lowest ebb. A critical evaluation of 2010 remains vital to understanding why the movement failed in its demands, and where the precedent leaves students today. I will argue that student power in Britain needs its own theory, its own analyses—independent from, but interrelated to—the struggles of different social groups. Any history of a student movement must first analyse the unique social, political, and economic relationship students have with the society they are part. Students are not a class but an ephemeral social group, a transitional social stage. Their unique ability to create movements that are spontaneous, radical, yet episodic, can be explained by this position. Students have the time, space, and means to organise movements quickly. Unlike workers, they do not have to convince their whole workplace to take action. Radicals can organise with or without an apathetic (or even hostile) majority. The political inexperience of many students, coupled with students’ unique ability to organise, can in large part explain the anti-authoritarian, spontaneous, anarchic, characteristics observed in modern student movements. Student’s ideas, tactics and strategy usually develop in a dialectical process more intense than those of workers, as half-formed, often contradictory moral propositions are challenged in the process of struggle, usually by the state and localised administrations.

The politics of 2010 shared similarities with—while remaining distinct from—the last mass student revolt in the UK: 1968. On a national level the 2010 movement was centred on a defence of Higher and Further Education, articulated against fees and cuts to Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). In time demands were also expressed on a localised level in the form of calls for a staff living wage and precautions against victimisation (1). The UCL occupation’s demand for reform to the university council, for instance, stands in continuity with similar calls for student autonomy in 1968, in universities like Oxford and Warwick. Coupled with material demands, much of the movement articulated a common political and moral case, which was unified, at least originally, around a feeling of ‘betrayal’. The tendency of some parts of the student movement (at least originally) to substitute a moral approach for social and political analysis can apply to Laurie Penny(2), just as it can to Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. The Liberal-Democrats (and bête-noire leader Nick Clegg) became the material expression of a wider betrayal of parliamentary sovereignty and legitimacy, in which some protesters had put their faith(3). The betrayal was also manifested and articulated in the breaking of a social-contract by a political class which used the logic of austerity, efficiency and value, to deny the Millbank generation the same funded education they themselves had enjoyed.

All social movements have their own myths, student movements more than most. For the student revolt of 2010, the myth was Millbank. Here roughly 2000 students were able to transform the protest from a peaceful march going from A to B (mirroring the style of marches seen in the Stop the War movement), into a full-scale occupation of the Conservative Party’s head-quarters. In the process they revolutionised the strategy, image, articulation and style of the movement. The symbolism of Millbank was critical in how students, seasoned activists, and international observers regarded the subsequent revolt. The destruction of a ruling party’s head-quarters is not supposed to happen in any society, let alone in a member country of the G8. Millbank was a symbolic act of destruction (4) a 21st century amalgam of ‘propaganda of the deed’ and Grand Theft Auto; Freudian psychosis and Hobbesian drama; a collective, spontaneous, ‘high’, which encouraged the politics of emulation and fetishism. Just as at Grosvenor Square in 1968, ‘violence brought its own attraction’(5). The property destruction and targeted occupations of later demonstrations (6), was in part influenced by the anarcho-militarist Black Block fantasies inherited from the anti-capitalist movement of Seattle 1999, and in other part by a conscious continuation of a popular British street politics, as enacted by the suffragettes (7) and the Poll Tax riots.

The Millbank that mythologised the ‘crowd’(8) brought its own curse. By the morning of November 11th the movement possessed a momentum of its own. The radicals had won strategic and ideological hegemony. The right of the student movement was both alienated and impotent. The government was forced to respond to the terms set at Millbank. Millbank both invigorated the movement and embodied the contradictions that were to precipitate its artificial dissolution (9). The snap vote called by the Coalition (on 3rd December) for 9th December should be framed within the context of a mass student movement which engulfed Britain’s education system for just under a month. Potential of further contagion to other social groups, falling poll ratings of both Coalition parties, and a political class with a historical penchant for successfully outmaneuvering street politics, set the stage for the Government’s response. The fact that Britain’s political classes did not wait to announce a vote on fees, as did Quebec’s Liberal government for two years, prevented the revitalising of democratic student structures, and, critically, extinguished the momentum of the movement, just as students entered the winter-break. The loss of momentum should be framed as a structural issue for student movements, not just as an unfortunate irritation. When concessions won at Berkeley in December 1964 coincided with the winter break, the movement declined and fragmented, ultimately allowing Mario Savio to be expelled. The Italian student power of 1967-8 had declined by 1969; the 1968 LSE occupation ended after one week, when the occupation voted to moderate demands, while the German SDS (10) declined after a split at the November 1968 conference (11). The 2010 movement was following well-trodden paths.

• • •

The demographic composition of the movement—compromised by the balance of forces between old and new protesters, and between school and university students—is important to understand. Unlike most of the world, UK students have the price of their education set on the year of entering university rather than yearly enrolment, with this meaning 2010 demonstrated, in many ways, a collective defence of education, rather than purely a defence of individual interest. Some university students involved in 2010 had previous experience in the Gaza occupations of 2009, the top-up fee protests in 2004, the Climate Camp, the G20 protests, and other anti-capitalist initiatives. But these numbers were certainly not large (12) The horizontal, confrontational, spontaneous, theme was organic to the circumstances, and partly a response to the failures of extra-parliamentary, top-down, organisation-led campaigning going from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1960s (13) to Stop the War in 2003. It is important to note that even with a 50,000 people march in London on November 10th and a national 130,000 people walkout on November 24th, only 3-400 people attended the Education Activist Network (EAN) and National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts (NCAFC) conferences .

The real distinction between 1968 and 2010 (though not the grant campaigns of 1972-4 which did reach the Technical colleges), was the role of school and Further-Education students, many of which came from deprived backgrounds. Driven by a defence of EMA and university fees, the role of school students radically altered the class dynamic in student demonstrations, as well as in the culture and the grassroots leadership of protests. The protester who claimed ‘we are from the slums of London…EMA is the only thing keeping us in college, what’s stopping us doing drug deals on the streets? Nothing’ (14) is just one example among many. The direct ‘links’ made between FE and university students were not, nevertheless, what created a symbiosis between the groups. The two spheres were largely separate, only to converge during protests and demonstrations in which university students had offered the original organisational leadership (through organisations like EAN, NCAFC, and various occupations). The ‘divide and rule’ politics based on 1960s stereotypes of privileged students, peddled even by sections of the ‘left’ (15) was no longer credible in 2010. Students in higher education represented 45% of their age-group, while the vast majority of under-19s were in full-time education. Students are no longer the privileged minority of old.

The role of organisation in the movement mirrors the inheritance of 1968, as well as the innovations. After Millbank shifted the political dialogue outside its usual habitat, the National Union of Students (NUS) shied away from calling any mobilisations except a bizarre glow-stick vigil on December 9th. This response was to be expected, given the similar behaviour exhibited after the LSE occupation and the Vietnam protests in 1968 (16). NUS President Aaron Porter called the Millbank protest ‘despicable’ and ‘senseless’, conducted by ‘anarchists…who probably don’t care about fees. I suspect most weren’t students’ (17). This account mirrors to a comical degree the statement made by NUS president Geoff Martin after the October 1968 Vietnam protest (18). The NUS, in contrast to knee-jerk popular student feeling at the time, did play a complex and contradictory role. The above-expected size of the Millbank demonstration, which set off the movement, was partly a product of the time and resources it was allocated by the NUS. With little organisational oversight or agency enacted from above, informal networks, direct action committees and ‘strike teams’ combined with affinity groups (such as Oxford Education Campaign), as well as a dozen occupations around the country, in order to offer democratic (if nebulous) grassroots leadership and organisation where the NUS would not. For all their democratic proselytising, however, occupations were invariably small affairs. UCL’s occupation consisted of around 200 people, while Oxford University’s occupation of the Radcliffe Camera compromised 50 students out of a University population of over 20,000. And as the movement abruptly disintegrated after the loss of the vote and the winter-break, these affinity groups (in the vast majority of cases) ceased to exist.

The reason for defeat in 2010 is related to the failure of the student movement to unite with social forces outside itself, notably the working class and trade-unions. Their isolation meant that students were unable to force a deeper social crisis for the government and their wider austerity politics. This mirrored the same predicament at the LSE occupation of 1968, which faced a working class not yet ready to challenge the Government’s Income Policy. Nowadays, the aim to defend education would easier fit an alliance with workers fighting the wider Coalition program of cuts and privatisation, than some of the anti-imperialist politics of 1968. Although Union General Secretaries Len McClusky (Unite), Bob Crow (Unite), and Mark Serwotka (PCS) praised the movement, claiming that students had ‘put trade unions on the spot’ (19), workers did not move into action like they did during May 1968 in France. This can be explained by the different stages in which students and workers found themselves in the autumn of 2010. The trade-unions had only just started building against job losses, wage freezes and pension cuts, while the students were the first ones to challenge the austerity consensus (20), and so were isolated.

The student movement of 2010 should also be framed within a wider international context. Students at Millbank chanted ‘Greece, France, now here too’, while the Book Block shield formation seen on December 9th was inspired by Italian students who were also demonstrating in November. In a transnational media age of satellite channels and fluid networks of social media it is easy to forget the ability of reports, videos, and pictures to spread over the world at a rapid speed. There was international media coverage, from Egypt to Russia, from Pakistan to Palestine. The image of Britain’s exceptionalism from social conflict was challenged in a concerted way. If British students could occupy and sack their ruling party’s headquarters why couldn’t Egyptians? There were solidarity demonstrations with British students in Greece (where there was 5 arrests and 3 injuries) (21), Quebec (22) and Italy, as there were statements of support from anti-fascist groups in Germany (23) and from the Chairperson of the European Student’s Union Karina Ufert (24) in Brussels.

The occupations of 2010 didn’t repeat the call of 1968 for ‘red bases’. In the theory of ‘red bases’, universities could become havens, independent from bourgeois society, out of which revolutionary action could be waged (25). The ethos of the ‘red base’ did have continuities with the occupations and initiatives in the autumn of 2010 if one observes the concerted effort to ‘reimagine’ education, reclaim space, and attempt out-reach programs. This reflected, in language and action, the occupations like Hornsey and Hull in 1968, although without the confident revolutionary critique. The ‘Reimagining University Conference’ at Leeds, the ‘Camp for Education’ at the University of West England, the ‘Free School’ at LSE, the ‘University for Strategic Optimism’ at Goldsmith’s, the ‘Bloomsbury Fight Back’ project, the Teach-Out and Teach-Ins at Oxford, SOAS, or UCL, and the ‘Arts Against the Cuts’ in Tate Britain (which delayed the Turner Prize) were all part of these initiatives. Situationism (though not the Dutch ‘Provos’) became an ideological accessory for a certain (small but vocal) section of the protests (26). This revival should be framed as a form of aesthetic ultra-leftism.

Unable to encroach on profits like workers, there seems a tendency for students in universities, often far in advance of the rest of society (1968 as 2010) in terms of radicalism, to act as an aesthetic vanguard (27) to ‘shock’ and ‘jam’ enough of the ruling culture to ‘awaken’ other social forces. Technological utopianism and fetishism in 2010, resulting from the ephemeral success with ‘networks’ and horizontalist organising across Facebook and Twitter, was both reflected in and contrasted with the inheritance of 1968. On the one hand there was the Provo idea of the ‘homo ludens’ as the ‘new man’ living for pleasure in a computerised world, while on the other there were the 1968 handmade posters at the Sorbonne and the 1964 anti-computer protests in Berkeley—both directed as a response to the ‘reduction of artistic integrity’ (28). The jump, therefore, from the blasphemous stunt in Notre-Dame by the Lettrists in 1950 to targeted student and UK Uncut flash-mobs is more a question of what culture is ‘jammed’ than tactics or strategy. The role of banners, placards, and memes, should be observed as expressive instruments, rather than throwaway language or turns-of phrase. Homemade Harry Potter-inspired signs like ‘Dumbledore wouldn’t stand for this!’ and ‘This Sh*t wouldn’t happen at Hogwarts’, in conjunction with the infatuation for V for Vendetta masks (29), are signs of a generation raised on Harry Potter and popular films, rather than Marx (30). The humour and satire exhibited is harmless, yet at the same time disguises the lack of politics of certain sections of the movement.

• • •

Any analysis of the British student movement in 2010 should be both critical, without nostalgia for the past, and framed against the rich inheritance of student power, past and present. The failures of 2010 were in part a product of the movement’s radicalism and energy. The parliamentary manoeuvring of the Coalition in December should be seen as a direct consequence of the movement’s success as a popular challenge to the government and its austerity agenda, striking fear in the government that the contagion might spread to other social sectors. It was therefore in the strength of the movement—in the style and strategy set out at Millbank—that its central contradiction lay. The movement defined by Millbank was unable to force a deeper social crisis or a constructive ideological challenge to neoliberal orthodoxy, since this type of movement, at that specific historical juncture, was a product of—and in turn invited further—isolation. A truly mass, democratic, movement was needed, rooted in grassroots structures and initiatives, present in schools, campuses, departments, and colleges, around which all students, not just the students who attended demonstrations and walkouts, could be integrated and be bound by the collective struggle and democratic will of their peers. Although encouraging a new youth street-politics to emerge, a movement defined by demonstrations and direct actions prevented itself from leading a concerted attempt to carry out more concrete, radical action, such as was taken by nationally coordinated student structures in Quebec, with their indefinite student strike. This is not to wish in retrospect for a cloned movement which, for nationally and historically determined reasons, was not necessarily reproducible. What 2010 needed, however, was the kind of struggle that could have superseded the contradictions and structural limitations students suffer from, in their inability to force truly general crises like workers. A prolonged, progressively built, and drawn out struggle waged in a nationally coordinated manner through democratic, grassroots, and accountable institutions, acting as the memory of the movement, was needed in order to circumvent the tyranny of spontaneity and grant the ability to ally in a concrete way with the struggles of workers. •

Matt Myers studies History at Wadham College and is Co-Editor in Chief of the Oxford Left Review.

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  1. The UCL occupation’s demands were ‘1. A statement from management condemning all cuts to higher education with the vice-chancellor’s (Malcolm Grant) salary to be equivalent with that of Oxbrigde, 2. UCL cleaners to receive living wage, out-sourced staff to be brought in-house, 3. A reformed University council made up of 1⁄4 students, 1⁄4 management, 1⁄4 tutors and 1⁄4 support staff’. J. Biggs, ‘At the Occupation’, London Review of Books, 16th December 2010.
  2. L. Penny, ‘You Say You Want a Revolution’ in D. Hancox, ed., Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest, Open Democracy 2011.
  3. S. Burge ‘I was held at the student protest for five hours’ in D. Hancox, ed., Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest, Open Democracy 2011.
  4. 30th November BBC interview with a 19th Year-Old (unnamed-student protestor), “Smashing windows was necessary in the beginning to get demonstrations on the front pages, but now the violence would be counter-productive.”
  5. J. Green, Days in the Life, London 1988.
  6. The ideological property damage of Millbank continued to a Police van (24th November) , the Treasury and statues in Parliament square (9th December), yet spilled over in to objects a bus-stop (24th) and an information booth (9th).
  7. Bob Cow (General Secretary of RMT) ‘Only when suffragettes broke windows did the world take notice’ quoted at the UCL Occupation in J. Biggs, ‘At the Occupation’, London Review of Books, 16th December 2010.
  8. G. LeBon, The Crowd; Study of the Popular Mind, 1896 Paris.
  9. YouGov poll (whole populace) on 14th November showed 35% supporting fee increase, 52% opposed, with 65% having sympathy with demo. Yet in the same poll 69% said violence had damaged the cause while 13% said it had benefited it. A poll of students on 30th November showed 78% oppose tuition fees, 54% believed violence at protests had hurt the cause and 27% sympathised with direct action against Millbank. Figures can be accessed at http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/2874 and http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/ blog/archives/2894.
  10. Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund.
  11. C. Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After, Bookmarks 1988.
  12. (On describing the UCL occupation) ‘None had taken part in student politics before, a few had been on the 2003 Stop the War march as 11-13 year olds’ J. Biggs, ‘At the Occupation’, London Review of Books, 16th December 2010.
  13. M. Frey ‘The International Peace Movement’ in M. Klimke & J. Scharloth, 1968 in Europe—A History of Protest and Activism, 1956-1977, 2008 New York.
  14. Newsnight 9th December 2010, Paul Mason, ‘The Dubstep Rebellion—The British Banlieue comes to Millbank’, 4:00 mins. The protestor is proved right by the statistics: EMA increased total attendance by 6.1% and among 16-17 year-old men by 8.6%, http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/asset/news/6011/emareport2010. pdf.
  15. ‘Sorry students but you are low on the pecking order’, Poly Toynbee, The Guardian, 5th November 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/05/students-low-pain-pecking-order.
  16. “The NUS has all the passion of an ashtray,” D. Widgery, ‘NUS—The student’s muffler’, in A. Cockburn & R. Blackburn, eds., Student Power, 1969.
  17. Springtime—The New Student Rebellions, eds. C. Solomon & Tania Palmieri, Verso 2011.
  18. The two presidents have strikingly similar testimonies, the author expects this is more structural than chance. ‘The trend to violence must be halted…The NUS defends the right to peaceful demonstrations. Many groups planning violence are conning students and the general public into believing their main concern is Vietnam. It is not, their purpose is confrontation with the police…These political hooligans, many of whom are not students, they admit they want a ‘weekend revolution’, G. DeGroot, The 60s Unplugged—A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade, MacMillan 2008.
  19. L. McClusky, ‘Unions, get set for battle’, The Guardian, Monday 20th December.
  20. ‘The scene is set for more yesterdays…we have been warned’, Chris Blackhurst, 11th November 2010, Evening Standard, http://www.standard.co.uk/news/expect-more-rage-if-the-rich-and-poor-divide-gets-bigger-6535068.html.
  21. “Some 2,000 students marched through Athens downtown. As they tried to break a police cordon to march to the British embassy in solidarity with British students, the situation got out of control Police fired teargas and arrested five protesters, three students were slightly injured.” See http://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2010/12/02/students-and-police-clash-in-athens.
  22. Montreal Gazette, 7th December 2010, Page 3.
  23. http://antifajd.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/declaration-of-solidarity-with-student.html.
  24. http://www.esu-online.org/news/article/6001/ESU-Chair-shows-solidarity-with-demo-in-London.
  25. Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation Manifesto, New Left Review 1/53 Jan-Feb 1969 and ‘A Revolutionary Student Movement’ Anthony Barnett, Ibid.
  26. ‘(We need too) Re-politicise space and aesthetics by political action’, J. Moses ‘Postmodernism in the Streets: the tactics of protest are changing’ in D. Hancox, ed., Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest, 2011 Open Democracy.
  27. The Provos, as with some sections of the Italian ‘student power’ movement, believed that the revolutionary vanguard would not be compromised of the working-classes but artists, students, and young people.
  28. Tariq Ali, Street Fighting Years—An Autobiography of the Sixties, Verso 2005, pg 13.
  29. J. Darling, ‘On [Protest] Signs and Signified’ in D. Hancox, ed., Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest, 2011 Open Democracy.
  30. Even if placards of socialist student societies and education campaigns were also present. 
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