Ungoverned by the left, unpoliced by the state

Yesterday’s political violence in London provided a striking snapshot of the flailing authority of both the traditional left and the police.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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So, what was that all about? The morning after the riotous night before, how can we explain the gathering of thousands of students in the political heart of London, and their subsequent leaking into Whitehall and Oxford Street, where they smashed up the Treasury building, did some damage to Topshop, and frightened the life out of Charles and Camilla?

None of the official or radical explanations for this night of political violence rings true. Neither the Metropolitan Police’s predictable denunciations of ‘violent elements’ hellbent on destroying London, nor left-wing commentators’ impassioned hymns to a new 1968-style movement for progress, captures what took place in London yesterday. Instead, what these events reveal, for anyone who cares to look, is the profound crisis of legitimacy of both the forces of the state and the forces of the left – with the state utterly incapable of properly policing the protesters, and the traditional organisations of the left utterly incapable of cohering them around a political ideal.

In effect, yesterday’s anti-tuition fees protest took place in a political and military vacuum. Neither governed by the official trade union movement, much of which was involved in the protest, nor effectively policed by the state, the demonstration had an air of bewilderment from the very start. The march itself, from Malet Street to Parliament Square, had a striking absence of both coherent political aims and police officers. The political chanting was sporadic and changeable (one guy shouted ‘What do we want?’ and there were at least four or five different responses), and the police were simply waiting, in their hundreds, at the agreed endpoint of the demonstration: Westminster. Following the march through central London, I got the distinct impression of a stream of people neither politicised by the left nor policed by the authorities.

In the past, the official left, in this instance through various educational trade unions and the National Union of Students, would not only have sought to take the political reins of a demo like this – it would also have pretty much policed it on the state’s behalf. Through liaising with the cops, posting streams of yellow-jacketed ushers on the sidelines, and having a word with those judged to be potential troublemakers, official left leaders would have been keen to demonstrate both their political authority and their trustworthiness in the eyes of the state by keeping a protest like this on the straight and narrow.

Now, it is testament to the increasing isolation of these movements, to their absence of clear political vision or ability to connect with the public, that yesterday’s protest was both ungoverned and unpoliced by the official left. The corrosion of the authority of the old left-wing organisations was best captured by the fact that the executive committee of the NUS voted not even to attend yesterday’s demo; instead it held a candlelit vigil on the Thames, meaning to symbolise peaceful opposition to university tuition fees, but better symbolising the political and moral isolation of the traditional left.

When a police spokeswoman said she was disappointed that protesters had deviated from the route pre-agreed by the police with student and trade union representatives, she unwittingly provided an insight into both the inability of the official left to assert moral authority over political movements and the lack of any meaningful, impacting relationship today between the state and union officials.

If the bewilderment of the protest pointed to the demise of the political authority of the left, then its chaotic ending spoke to the corrosion of the brute authority of the state. What I am about to say will annoy those who got walloped with a truncheon, but still: there is no question that the police were more hands-off and hesitant at yesterday’s demo than they have been in previous eras. Yes, they used violence, and I can testify that even being close to the line-up of jittery police horses was not a pleasant experience. But in earlier times, the police would have single-mindedly cracked heads open, dragged off the ringleaders, and done everything within their power to ‘neutralise’ and bring to an end a demo-turned-mini-riot. Yesterday they didn’t do that.

Instead, they kettled the students in one place, which is the policing equivalent of a parent using the naughty step rather than a slap to discipline their children. Kettling is designed to dampen youths’ energy in preference to engaging physically with them through force or arrest. It is very unpleasant for the kettled, but it is a tactic that emerges not from wild-eyed Orwellian authoritarianism but from its opposite: a desire not to stamp on a human face but rather to force humans into one fairly confined space, in the hope that they will get drunk or high or go to sleep. Towards the evening, Parliament Square resembled, not the streets of Paris in 1968, but a massive playpen: inside students were doing the conga and burning things, while outside the teachers – sorry, police – kept a watchful eye.

The fact that some students were later able to spread around London, to carry out acts of violence in Whitehall through to Soho, reveals the extent to which the police now put all their energies into the hands-off kettling strategy. They were utterly unprepared for anything that might occur outside of the kettle. As a consequence of the incoherence of state authority, the PC-ing of the police, the rise of a health-and-safety culture and other significant developments, the police are not the driven institution they once were.

This is what is significant about yesterday’s demo: it provided a snapshot of the disarray of both the state and its one-time radical critics. Some will say: so what? Who cares if the official left, with its quisling instincts, is flailing? More to the point, who cares if the cops don’t like to go in with all guns blazing these days? Isn’t it good that young people are organising independently?

But that’s the thing: it would be wrong to see the anti-fees protests as a politically conscious or seriously independent movement. Rather, these spontaneous gatherings, this spontaneous violence, really express the corrosion of the old forms of authority rather than expressing a new political outlook. One of the most striking things about yesterday’s demo was the projection of various different instincts and urges and angers. There was a very interesting class divide, for example. In the middle of Parliament Square, middle-class, largely white Higher Education students danced, set off flares and Twittered about their scuffles with the police; on the outskirts of the kettle, and on Whitehall, black, Asian and working-class Further Education students, of about 16 or 17, wore scarves over their mouths and smashed windows and telephone boxes. These younger protesters were ostensibly defending the small weekly allowance that poorer A-Level students currently get from the state. But you don’t have to be a cynic to see that they were really driven by something else: angst, alienation, a feeling of distance from mainstream Britain, including from the more respectable university students inside the kettle, with their sometimes clownish placards and their defence of their own way of life.

Can any kind of serious or progressive new politics emerge from this strange and spontaneous thing? That remains to be seen. In the meantime, we can see the shrapnel of the old politics all around us, next to the smashed glass and paint-spattered limousines.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here

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Topics Politics


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