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Student protests, packed lunches and pushy parents. Brendan O'neill on contemporary protest.

It has become de rigueur in recent years to look down one’s nose at pushy parents. To be snobby about those mums (it’s mostly mums) who make little Olivia do 20 hours of tap a week in the hope that she’ll grow up to be a twenty-first century Ginger Rogers or at least the new Bonnie Langford.

But those parents with stars in their eyes don’t have a patch on a far more respectable breed of pushy parent: the political pushy parent, who sends their kids on anti-government demonstrations, complete with packed lunches, in the hope that they’ll grow up to be a twenty-first century Sylvia Pankhurst or at least a new Tariq Ali. These mums and dads are ‘living through their kids’ in a far more serious and sad way than the showbiz ones.

Probably the most striking thing about last week’s student demo against the Lib-Con government’s cuts and tuition fees agenda was not the protest itself – which, like all youth protests, was loud, bracing and had some good points as well as bad ones – but rather the sad-dad effect. It was the way in which university lecturers, teachers, journalists and middle-class parents – the respectable adult world – gave a vigorous nod of approval to the demonstration, fantasising that it was some kind of genetic or educational extension of their own inner youthful radicalism. It is a shocking indictment of contemporary adult society that it is now effectively pushing forward children – what it rather patronisingly refers to as ‘the Harry Potter generation’ – to do its dirty work for it.

Like that fortysomething uncle who insists on wearing skinny jeans, or the greying dad who quotes N-Dubz (‘As Dappy wisely says…’), certain sections of adult society couldn’t resist bopping awkwardly on the sidelines of last Wednesday’s protest in central London. The results were often highly embarrassing. ‘Wow’, said one newspaper reporter, ‘the atmosphere in Trafalgar Square is fantastic’. ‘The excitement of bunking off school AND climbing public statues AND swearing in front of police is very obvious’, she continued, sounding for all the world like that drama teacher we all had – maxi-dress, ridiculous earrings, penchant for Victoria Wood – who’d say things like: ‘In my class anything goes, even rude words!’

Lots of adults were explicitly trying to recapture their own youths through their effusiveness over Wednesday’s demo. One mum, approving of her daughter Alice’s decision to bunk off school, told the Observer that it stirred ‘memories of her own radical youth’ – all those ‘Greenpeace sit-ins and Free Nelson Mandela marches’. Yet for other overexcited, presumably older adult observers, the protesters were like the ‘angelic spirits of 1968’: these youth have given us ‘pictures of revolution, the real thing, in its romantic and large-minded soixante-huitard form’, said one, no doubt teary-eyed hack. This is pure projection, with variously aged adult cheerleaders insisting ‘it’s just like the Eighties!’ or ‘it’s just like the Sixties!’.

Most embarrassing of all (certainly for any self-respecting young radical) was the open involvement of parents and other adults in facilitating and bringing to a conclusion the youthful demonstration. One newspaper says that the parents of some of the younger protesters, the 14- to 17-year-olds who bunked off school, ‘had dropped their children, by car, at the start of the demo’. These kids reportedly had ‘snack lunches and bottled water thoughtfully provided by their parents’. When the children were kettled by the cops, their parents ‘frantically’ texted them advice and phoned both the Metropolitan Police and the BBC to complain and to get updates. One mother says a ‘very sympathetic policewoman’ on the Met’s helpline offered her ‘reassurance’. I remember when it was considered embarrassing if your mum phoned a mate’s house to check if you were okay during a sleepover. But to phone the cops to find out, in the words of one demo-approving dad, ‘when our children will be home’? That’s the death-knell of radicalism right there.

The institutions of adult society effectively gave children permission to be on the demo. Some headteachers made no effort to prevent their pupils from leaving school premises, with the head of Camden School for Girls even hinting that she admired her school’s 200 bunking protesters. For some in the teaching and university worlds, it seems, this was less a 1968-style revolution than a kind of educational field trip, an extension of those citizenship classes in which children are taught about the importance of voting and community activism. As one adult observer said, ‘many un-enfranchised schoolkids showed virtually no interest in politics’, but this demo ‘changed everything’. Maybe they’ll get that A* now.

What this adult sanctioning and glee over Wednesday’s demo really reveals is an adult world that now pushes its children to do its political work for it. Teachers, university workers and journalists, like many others, are concerned about the Lib-Cons’ cuts agenda and the future of British society more broadly. But lacking any serious ideas, bereft of an effective language in which to articulate and pursue their concerns, they hide behind groups of children instead, hoping that the young ones’ fresh-facedness, their energy, their implacable anger (at least as excitedly talked up by the adult observers), will land a political blow where their own ideas and ideals have failed.

So journalists describe the protest as a ‘children’s crusade’, a combination of innocence and anger, in an attempt to present it, and the specific anti-Lib-Con ideas that they hope are driving it, as beyond question, as an utterly un-ignorable stand against Cameron and Co. After all, who would want to challenge, far less mistreat, ‘the Harry Potter generation’, with their cute placards saying ‘Dumbledore wouldn’t stand for this shit’? A group of academics and journalists wrote to a newspaper about the importance of protesting against the government’s ‘cuts to state support for higher education’ – but they presented themselves as ‘parents of sixth-form school students concerned at the tactics adopted by the police at the demonstration’. Here, grown-ups are trying to turn kids into ventriloquist’s dummies for their own political agendas – and trying to warn off the state and the Lib-Con political machine by effectively saying: ‘Don’t touch the kids, their protest is pure and childlike!’

At the same time there’s a large serving of self-loathing in some of the baby-boomers’ booming praise for the youthful protesters. Many of the adult observers of the current student demos are really saying that youngsters are right to kick back against us, the selfish, planet-destroying adults. The reason the youth are angry, said one commentator, is because we, ‘their parents’ generation’, have ‘handed them a global meltdown: global warming, global debt and global insecurity’. This dynamic – where adults effectively welcome what they see as youthful punishment of the adult world for its numerous sins – captures what lies behind today’s broader anti-boomer outlook: not so much a serious or independent youthful questioning of contemporary society, as a kind of internal corrosion of adult authority itself, a collapse of commitment to old ideals like liberty and risk-taking. Another reason many of today’s adults love the look and sound of the current student protests is because, like political S&Mers, they think they deserve a good kicking.
Of course cross-generational solidarity is no bad thing. But this isn’t that. This is pretty vacant adult actors sanctioning and flattering youthful protesters for their own fairly narrow political benefit. The kids may be all right, but the adults aren’t.

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  1. The mass audio-visual media has consistently misrepresented student protests and tuition fee rises - but how do we tackle them?


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