Student movement: the debate rages (with Zenlike calm)
I covered the student occupation movement on Newsnight last night, from within the occupied Brunei Gallery at SOAS. That was followed by a lively debate in the studio afterwards, and the intensity of discussion in the studio was matched by that on Twitter, which was so vituperative that my iPhone nearly melted.
It's in marked contrast to the atmosphere at the student mass meetings: here, very unlike 30 years ago, all interventions are delivered in a calm, flat, deliberately reasoned tone. Anybody who sounds like a career politician, or anybody who attempts rhetoric, or anybody whose emotions overtake them is greeted with a visceral distaste.
This form of discourse is lifted directly from the anti-globalisation movement, complete with that hand shaking gesture to show assent without adding vocal encouragement, which we used to call cheering.
I don't know if it is better or worse than in the ideologised conflicts of the past.
It's better in the sense that it is less male dominated, and organised groups have to come over as individuals rather than monoliths with a party line, so the nuances of debate come out and people genuinely change their minds; it is worse in the sense that the deliberate creation of a restrained, unemotional atmosphere militates against clear meaning and does not exactly promote the idea of human greatness. (I wonder how a speech by Churchill, or Nye Bevan, would have gone down at one of these meetings).
In the end, the emotionless discourse may be the product of the central fact that hits you in the face when you report modern protests in Britain (and this phenomenon stops once you get to Ireland, France or the USA so it really is a Brit thing): there is no ideology driving it and no coherent vision of an alternative society.
This is what separates the modern student movement from its predecessor in the 1960s.
And the point is, even if you decry what the LSE students in 1968 thought they were fighting for, their generation really did shape its own destiny. The fact that the SOAS occupation mini-library is full of Derrida, Nietszche, Lacan, Fanon etc - and indeed so would be the official reading list of many courses - is a product of the great intellectual ferment of 68 and after. Ditto the "quiet prayer space" the students have created, even though the students of 68 would have laughed at it.
It raises the general political question - for both left and right in this technocratic age of "what works", "fairness" and political "blank sheets of paper": can you really shape history without an ideal?
I think also, on reflection, there is another reason why people are so restrained and un-ideological. Because the potential for damage arising from conflict appears to be larger now than before. The demos, when they get violent, immediately become more violent on both sides - check out the Youtube footage - than anything in the 1960s. So - like in America where there is no violence on the streets until there is shooting - you get restraint and then it snaps. So people go a long way to avoid it snapping.
So anyway, for now, feel free to hit the comment button on the pros and cons of the fee increases, the rights and wrongs of the student movement, and reasoned thoughts on where it's all going.