Seeing the students playing cat and mouse with the police last week brought back a few memories so I thought I’d see if there was anything at all on the interweb about the student demo I went on in 1984. I wasn’t very hopeful because most online newspaper archives don’t go back that far. Fortunately, Lib Dem activist Martin Tod was on the same demo and he’s one of those people who hoards old news clippings, some of which he has posted on his blog.
There are some interesting parallels with the student action of recent weeks. Then, as now, it had been preceded by a period of political apathy among students. There were annual protests against the paltry increases in the grant but most students regarded its steady erosion as inevitable, broadly accepting that all but the poorest parents would have to pay more to keep their children while they were at university.
It was the decision to introduce tuition fees that brought so many people out onto the streets in the biggest student demonstration since the 1960s. For many people, tuition fees crossed a line. Paying for living costs was one thing; having to pay fees undermined the whole principle of free higher education. The docile 80s students woke up. The numbers travelling to the demo surprised even the NUS and mayhem ensued.
The plan had been for a peaceful rally on the South Bank and an orderly march to somewhere or other. Easy enough when there are 3,000 people, as there had been on previous demos. When there are 30,000 things get more difficult to control and the authorities get jumpy. This was eight months into the miners’ strike and there was a general sense of unruly rebellion among the student population. Hatred of the Conservative government was almost universal but disdain for the mainstream left was not far behind. The speakers from the NUS and other leftie groups were ignored and the crowd began to move towards the Houses of Parliament, seemingly undirected by anyone. The police blocked Westminster Bridge and, as students ran hither and thither trying to get across the river, they closed Lambeth and Waterloo Bridges too. Central London became grid-locked with rush hour traffic and the city ground to a halt. According to newspaper reports, MPs were ‘trapped’ in the Houses of Parliament for several hours.
Although my memory of the day is somewhat hazy, I don’t remember there being much aggro, though there must have been some because Martin Tod’s article reports 180 arrests. The following day, the Daily Mail printed a picture of the demo with the headline “Animals!” That paper’s calm and balanced approach to journalism hasn’t changed much in the last quarter of a century.
I kept a copy of the “Animals” headline for some years before chucking it away. If the photographer had pointed his camera a few degrees to the right, I would have been in the picture. I was disappointed at the time although it was probably no bad thing, given that there were all sorts of funny people keeping files on student nutters back then.
I remember it as rather a fun day out. Eventually some of us did get across the Thames from the South Bank, by playing our own cat-and-mouse game with the police. When they wouldn’t let us back across the river to our coaches on the South Bank, someone had the bright idea of getting on the Tube to Vauxhall. Why we hadn’t thought of that in the first place was anybody’s guess. Students – intelligent but not always very bright.
And what was the result of this day of fun and games? Martin Tod says we won but I remember my hardline commie mate put it like this at the time:
Make no mistake, our demo will make no difference. It’s the pushy parents who will make the government change its mind. They’re the ones with the real power.
And so it proved. The outrage of middle-class parents put the wind up Tory MPs and put tuition fees onto the back burner for over a decade. When they were eventually introduced, by a Labour government, I don’t remember so much as a murmur.
And now here we are again. After a long period of student apathy (I haven’t been watching but I’m told students have been fairly quiet over the past decade) tuition fees have kicked off another wave of protests. Again, the demonstrations are taking place against a backdrop of growing resentment against the government.
Will the students win this time? I’m not so sure. When we protested, our university authorities were right behind us. Nowadays many vice-chancellors support the increase in fees, claiming it is necessary if they are to compete with top universities around the world. It is fashionable to say that Britain looks a bit like the 1980s at the moment but the similarities are superficial. The world around us has changed radically. As we have seen over the past few years, the UK is not immune from global forces. Its higher education sector is no different. Domestic considerations are still important but what happens in the rest of the world constrains us in a way that it didn’t two decades ago.
Two protests separated by a quarter of a century; both over the same issue and both taking the authorities by surprise. There the similarities stop. Today’s protesters will find their battle much harder to win.
But there was something else about that 1984 demo that has a ring of familiarity about it. As the demonstrators moved off, seemingly spontaneously, towards Westminster and confrontation with the police, the NUS president was still making his speech to an ever decreasing audience.
Now, what was his name again……?
Ah yes, that was it. Phil Woolas!