This piece was originally published by The New Statesman and is re-posted here with permission.
It’s a bright, cold November afternoon, and inside 30 Millbank, the headquarters of the Conservative Party, a line of riot police with shields and truncheons are facing down a groaning crowd of young people with sticks and smoke bombs.
Screams and the smash of trodden glass cram the foyer as the ceiling-high windows, entirely broken through, fill with some of the estimated 52,000 angry students and schoolchildren who have marched through the heart of London to voice their dissent to the government’s savage attack on public education and public services. Ministers are cowering on the third floor, and through the smoke and shouting a young man in a college hoodie crouches on top of the rubble that was once the front desk of the building, his red hair tumbling into his flushed, frightened face.
He meets my eyes, just for a second. The boy, clearly not a seasoned anarchist, has allowed rage and the crowd to carry him through the boundaries of what was once considered good behaviour, and found no one there to stop him. The grown-ups didn’t stop him. The police didn’t stop him. Even the walls didn’t stop him. His twisted expression is one I recognise in my own face, reflected in the screen as I type. It’s the terrified exhilaration of a generation that’s finally waking up to its own frantic power.
Glass is being thrown; I fling myself behind a barrier and scramble on to a ledge for safety. A nonplussed school pupil from south London has had the same idea. He grins, gives me a hand up and offers me a cigarette of which he is at least two years too young to be in possession. I find that my teeth are chattering and not just from cold. "It’s scary, isn’t it?" I ask. The boy shrugs. "Yeah," he says, "I suppose it is scary. But frankly…" He lights up, cradling the contraband fag, "frankly, it’s not half as scary as what’s happening to our future."
There are three things to note about this riot, the first of its kind in Britain for decades, that aren’t being covered by the press. The first is that not all of the young people who have come to London to protest are university students. Lots are school pupils, and many of the 15, 16 and 17 year olds present have been threatened with expulsion or withdrawal of their EMA benefits if they chose to protest today. They are here anyway, alongside teachers, young working people and unemployed graduates.
What unites them? A chant strikes up: "We’re young! We’re poor! We won’t pay any more!"
The second is that this is not, as the right-wing news would have you believe, just a bunch of selfish college kids not wanting to pay their fees (many of the students here will not even be directly affected by the fee changes). This is about far more than university fees, far more even than the coming massacre of public education.
This is about a political settlement that has broken its promises not once but repeatedly, and proven that it exists to represent the best interests of the business community, rather than to be accountable to the people. The students I speak to are not just angry about fees, although the Liberal Democrats’ U-turn on that issue is manifestly an occasion of indignation: quite simply, they feel betrayed. They feel that their futures have been sold in order to pay for the financial failings of the rich, and they are correct in their suspicions. One tiny girl in animal-print leggings carries a sign that reads: "I’ve always wanted to be a bin man."