Revolting students

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Talk about selfless. The student life used to be one long round of impassioned protests against global war and social injustice.

Are your eyes glistening with nostalgia?

Then you must be getting on a bit. There's not been a lot of them around since the 1970s.

When were the heydays?

Peaked in 1968: in Paris, against the Gaullist government; Prague against the Communist regime; in London at American escalation of the Vietnam war; in Dhaka, Pakistan, students disrupted the second Test match in 1969 and eventually toppled a military dictator; anti-Vietnam war demos in the US - in 1970 national guardsmen shot dead four students at Kent State University. Tariq Ali, a leading light in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, recalls "a time of hope and love,satire and anger, revolt and creativity".

Any revolts on domestic issues?

Countless marches for improved student grants (remember those)?

Why did they decline?

Blame Thatcherite values of thrift, hard work, threat of unemployment, end of idealism, no such thing as society, part-time jobs to make ends meet, cult of greed...

Stop being so insular: what about the rest of the world?

Now you're talking. Unprecedented pro-democracy demo in Beijing's Tiananmen Square when hundred died; innumerable protests by Kenan students; violent demos in Indonesia's Sumatran province of Aceh.

What happened under New Labour?

Succeeded where the Tories failed: 15,000 took to the streets in November 2000, the biggest student demo in a decade, in the "Grants, not Fees" campaign.

What about this month's Mayday Monopoly demos?

"Nothing to do with us," said a spokeswoman for the National Union of Students, primly. No student unions organised any activities. And they were not involved in "Reclaim the Streets" either.

But wasn't there some trouble in Chester recently?

Pure fiction, I'm afraid. That sit-in last month in the Channel 4 series Hollyoaks was not based on the real-life Chester College. Gordon Reay, the union president, along with fellow students, was horrified at the spectacle of young people chanting and waving placards. He protested to the programme-makers, fearing that people might mistake art for life. "We have a problem with Hollyoaks. They have got it totally wrong. We don't go on strike. This is not the Sixties or Seventies."

So things ain't what they used to be?

Well, as Simon Hoggart in the Guardian observed of the Mayday demos: "In the past we young people hated home secretaries and ministers of defence. This lot hate coffee shops."

Diane Spencer

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