John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for December, 2013

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University of strife: John Harris on the latest wave of student protests

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

A new wave of college occupations has brought suspensions, arrests and allegations of police violence. Three years on from the tuition fee protests, why are students still angry?

It’s a cold and impossibly wet Thursday afternoon in Bloomsbury, central London, and not for the first time, it’s all kicking off. A pack of police minibuses has just sped into Russell Square, and scores of Met personnel are now spilling on to the streets. Behind the gates of the University of London’s administrative offices, other officers wield metal batons, sporadically lashing out at a crowd of student protesters who have marched here from nearby Malet Street. Within minutes, the line along which the students and police face off has been established, and a succession of chants fills the air: “Cops out! Students in! … Whose streets? Our streets! … You killed Mark Duggan!”

Such is the spectacle that has erupted around a Cops Off Campus demonstration, organised anonymously via tumblr. After a torrential downpour and an ad hoc occupation of the westbound side of Marylebone Road at the peak of rush hour, the centre of events soon shifts to Gower Street, and the entrance to Euston Square tube station. Close by, 20 or so protesters have apparently been kettled. A police helicopter thrums overhead. Every few minutes, there is a flash of renewed confrontation. “We just want to say we don’t want cops on our campus,” one student tells me. “But the police want a fight.”

Thanks to the upsurge of anger about tuition fees, 2010 marked a highpoint of student protest, seen most dramatically when protesters attacked the Westminster HQ of the Conservative party. Since then, an apparent quietening of student dissent and the arrival of a supposed economic recovery might have given the impression that the bitter mood of three years ago would not return.

But as events this week have proved, some young people remain incensed – and not just about fees, but a tangle of issues that runs from the privatisation of university jobs and facilities, through the low-end pay and conditions of workers on campus, to what many students see as the toxic effects of higher education being pushed towards the logic of the free market. Particularly in London, there is also increasing anger about the recurrent presence of police on campus.

Over the last week or so, there have also been occupations and protests at universities in Birmingham, Brighton, Exeter, Warwick, Derry, and Liverpool – barely reported in the mainstream press, but chronicled and sustained via social media. Outwardly, their main trigger was Tuesday’s strike by academics and other university employees over real-terms pay cuts and the “miserly” offer of a 1% rise. But the people involved say the student protests have now acquired a momentum of their own.

On Thursday, my day begins at the back of Holborn police station, in the company of around 20 student activists. Most are from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, here because they know two Soas students are being held inside – and because of their own role in this week’s convulsive events on campus.

The previous day, at around 2.30pm, around 60 students occupied the first floor of Senate House, the art deco leviathan that contains the administrative base of the University of London and the offices of its senior management. Their action was based on a 10-point agenda, covering everything from the pay and conditions of outsourced cleaners, through the structures of the University of London Union, to a demand that “the pay ratio between the lowest paid and the highest paid staff in the university should be reduced to a maximum of 10:1″.

The occupation lasted until around 7.20pm, when protesters began to be forcibly removed by security staff employed by Balfour Beatty, who handed them over to the police. But outside Senate House, there were then clashes between police and students, a number of arrests, and incidents of police violence, as evidenced by a video of one officer punching a protester. Five students were arrested; four, the activists tell me, were brought to Holborn, which then entailed a “rescue support” delegation maintaining a vigil overnight.

So, here they are, fending off the cold, passing round roll-ups and bags of chips, and recounting what happened 16 or so hours ago. Maham Hashmi, a 30-year-old South Asian studies undergraduate, and the University of London Union’s black student officer, tells me that Balfour Beatty employees were “grabbing people in appropriate places”, and that one of them manhandled her breast (the company does not respond directly to this allegation, but claims that “no unnecessary force was used” and “at all times the priority was the safety of staff, students and visitors”). Adam Barr, a 21-year-old student of Chinese and History, says he saw clear evidence of police violence: “One of the guys who got arrested was suffering from really bad concussion. He got hit by a policeman on the back of his head. He could barely focus.”

Every now and again, someone shouts “Let them go!” in the direction of the police station’s outer wall. After an hour, one of the arrested students emerges from a nearby door – dazed, obviously a little shaken, and reluctant to even give me his name, or tell me whether he has been charged with anything.

Instead, I ask his friends and supporters an obvious question: in terms of fundamental issues, why are they here? “This is all about the privatisation of education,” says Hashmi. “They’re trying to turn students into consumers.”

The University of London Union, she reminds me, is to be abolished. It will be replaced with a “management-run student services centre”, where people will be dealt with as individuals rather than a collective, and “the concept of students running things for students will be pushed away. So it’s basically Thatcherism applied to students. We won’t have a collective space to organise any more.”

The activists spend five minutes talking about spot-checks on students carried out by police officers and officials of the UK Border Agency, and the disproportionate stop-and-searching of black students. There is mention of the increasingly iniquitous fees system, and the imminent privatisation of the government’s student loan book, which they think will sooner or later hike up interest rates. Students tied to the new £9,000-a-year fees regime, they also say, have now reached their second year of studies and, conscious of their mounting debts, tend to be reluctant to get involved in protest.

They also talk about orthodox politics, and their lack of interest in it. None are involved with any conventional parties: from the Lib Dems to the Socialist Workers party, mention of them all is met with derisive guffaws. So, too, is the National Union of Students: “Worse than useless,” says Barr.

The day we meet, George Osborne has compounded the sense that the protesters and occupiers are part of a distinctly put-upon generation with the news they’ll have to work until they’re 70. “And by the time we actually retire, it’ll be, ‘Oh, you can’t even retire any more,’” says 20-year-old Tom King, who’s studying politics. “That’s what it’ll be like unless we get people doing the kind of stuff we did yesterday.

“What we have to remind people of is that we’re going to be the generation who are going to get fucked over: completely and utterly, in a way no generation has in the past,” says Hashmi. “Until we realise that we actually have nothing to lose, we’re not going to put enough energy into this. But that’s what people here have done. Because we literally have nothing to lose.”

At Sussex University, an occupation of the campus conference centre began on 26 November. Seven days later, students announced an end to their protest, and joined striking academics and other university staff. Soon after that, a handful of the protesters were told via email that they had been suspended from the university: they are now collectively known as the Sussex Five, and baffled by what has happened to them.

Among them is 23-year-old Adriano Merola Marotta, who was until recently studying for an MA in global politlical economy, having been at Sussex since 2009. He says he has no idea of how long his suspension will last, or his means of redress. “It feels very personal,” he says. Clearly, it also puts the kibosh on his studies: among other things, there are imminent exams he won’t be able to sit.

The Sussex protests, he says, are partly focused on two instances of privatisation: the handing-over of “facilities management” to the outsourcing firm Interserve, due to happen in January; and the contracting-out of “conference and catering” work to Chartwells, a subsidiary of the giant Compass group, which has meant changed terms and conditions, including zero-hours contracts. But there are clearly even bigger issues at stake. “Privatisation is the catalyst,” Marotta says. “But now we’re seeing a national movement, demanding more democracy for young people in universities.

“We feel there’s a race to the bottom by all three major parties, about which party can be most hostile to young people. In all the debates around benefits and tuition fees and the cuts, we feel we’ve been left aside by politicians. And the managers in our universities who seem to be operating in much the same way.”

Back in London, I meet Michael Chessum, the University of London Union’s president. On 14 November, the day after an on-campus demonstration about ULU’s abolition, he was arrested under the Public Order Act, as he understands it, on the grounds he had failed to serve notice that the protest would take place (campus demos, he tells me, are regular events, and arrests like his have not happened before). Whether he’ll be charged is unclear, but he sees what happened to him as part of a simple enough story: the deliberate targeting of student activists by university authorities and the police.

On campus, the atmosphere is uneasy. “Someone was arrested for chalking something on a wall during a cleaners’ demonstration,” he says. “I got arrested. Last night, I saw levels of police violence I haven’t seen on a student demonstration since Parliament square [in December 2010]. They didn’t pull out truncheons; they were just hitting and kicking people. I’ve got bruises. It’s almost unprecedented for the police to evict an occupation by force on the first night. And these guys were riot cops. We know that because of the vans they were driving, and the way they behaved.”

As he sees it, the approach taken by the university authorities (who have now been granted a High Court injunction against “protest by occupation” in campus buildings) and police will inevitably backfire. “The picture that’s being painted here is of an unaccountable university management shutting down its student union, screwing over its staff, and shutting down protest.”

The police, he reckons, are implementing lessons learned over the last few years: “They saw what happened in 2010 and they didn’t know what the hell was going on. But what they did in 2011 – massive kettling, mass arrests – put a lot of people off. They want to basically bludgeon student activism on campus. That’s what we’re seeing, certainly from the Met.” (I send a list of allegations about this week’s incidents to the force’s press office. Their reply says that ”as with all large public order incidents, a range of material will now be subject to review in order to establish the full facts”).

One floor below us, the first shouts are going up from the people gathered for the Cops Off Campus demo. Chessum joins the throng and disappears, but I meet him again outside Euston Square tube, anxiously surveying the chaos, and trying to keep up with the number of arrests (39, as it turns out).

Using the exact same words as Balfour Beatty, the university will subsequently claim that “No unnecessary force was used” and that “at all times the priority was the safety of staff, students and visitors”. Chessum, by contrast, talks about “disproportionate force”, and marvels at the numbers of police. “There’s no let-up,” he says. “It’s like they’re going for the jugular.”

What are his plans for the rest of the evening?

“Oh, I’m going to be at Holborn police station for most of the night,” he says. “We’ll all be standing outside. For a very long time.”

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Nelson Mandela in Britain: hero, villain and international treasure

Friday, December 6th, 2013

For the left, Mandela was a distant conscience; for the right he was a reminder of how badly they had got things wrong

On 16 April 1990, thousands swarmed into Wembley Stadium for a day-long event titled Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa. The running order featured such names as Youssou N’Dour, Neil Young, Simple Minds and Anita Baker – though compared with the main event, they faded into insignificance. Mandela was just two months out of prison and the fight against apartheid was still in full flow. When he took the stage, he was met with an eight-minute standing ovation that was only subdued by the efforts of the bemused longstanding anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Trevor Huddleston.

You can see it all on YouTube: Mandela and his then-wife Winnie happily taking in a great roar of love and support, which at one point segues into a mass rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone.

And then his speech: 30 minutes of characteristically measured oratory, punctuated by huge cheers that greeted just about everything he said. “The apartheid crime against humanity remains in place,” he told the crowd. “It continues to kill and maim. It continues to oppress and exploit … Therefore do not listen to anyone who says that you must give up the struggle against apartheid. Reject any suggestion that the campaign to isolate the apartheid system should be wound down … The reward the people of South Africa, of southern Africa and the rest of the world seek, is the end of apartheid and the transformation of our country into a non-racial democracy.”

Given that in 1988 there had been a Wembley concert aimed at celebrating Mandela’s 70th birthday and demanding his release, the day felt like a righteous triumph – though that did not quite ease a tension that informed its wider context.

Britain, after all, was ruled by a Conservative party whose more hard-bitten elements considered Mandela a dangerous untouchable and the anti-apartheid movement yet another leftist irritant. When the idea of an event in London had first been suggested, high-ups in the African National Congress had bristled: the UK remained “Thatcher’s country” – an accessory to apartheid, with a long record of opposing sanctions and backing the delusional policy of “constructive engagement”.

When Mandela faced the press before he went on stage, he tackled the question of a mooted prime ministerial visit to his country as follows: “We would regret it if Mrs Thatcher decided to come to South Africa, because that would give the wrong signals.”

For two years, Thatcher had been pushing for Mandela’s release, though she continued to rile the ANC by holding fast to her no-sanctions position. Three years before, she had maligned the ANC as “a typical terrorist organisation”.

Behind her, there were the Tory battalions whose de facto support for the apartheid regime, along with their sympathies with General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, defined Conservatism’s murky political ID. At events organised by the Federation of Conservative Students – among whose leading lights was one John Bercow – it was de rigueur to wear a “Hang Nelson Mandela” badge. When it was announced that the BBC would be screening the 1990 Wembley event, Tory MP John Carlisle, whose ties to the white South African government extended into the distance, said: “The BBC have just gone bananas … Many will remember his record and the record of his wife as they take the podium. This hero worship is misplaced.”

It seems particularly remarkable how long it took for Mandela to intrude into our politics and culture in a way we soon came to take for granted. For the first 20 years of his imprisonment, he was far from the protest icon he became during the 80s.

The most memorable Anglo-American anti-apartheid song, written by Peter Gabriel, was about Steve Biko; amazingly, Mandela’s first mention in the House Of Commons did not come until March 1983, thanks to a Labour MP called Ken Eastham. By then, however, something was definitely up and, particularly for the loose community of people who defined their politics against the Thatcher project, Mandela was gaining in status.

The decisive moment came in April 1984, when a group of British musicians released the anthem that would soon be sung in townships: Free Nelson Mandela, written by two tone pioneer Jerry Dammers and performed by the Special AKA. A mix of effervescent joy and keening sadness (”Twenty one years in captivity… his body abused, but his mind is still free”), it reached no 9 in the charts.

Meanwhile, the fight against apartheid was informing thousands of British lives: what food you bought, which bank you chose, the people you considered beyond the pale. The latter was not just about politicians: for every British musician who campaigned against apartheid, there was another who had broken the cultural boycott and played the notorious whites-only entertainment complex Sun City, built in one of the fake black homelands that formed part of the system’s infrastructure, and demonised in a Band Aid-esque single of the same name credited to Artists United Against Apartheid and released in 1985.

Among those who attracted no end of odium by playing there were Queen, though two of the band members – Brian May and Roger Taylor – eventually began playing concerts for Mandela’s Aids charity, posing with him for photographs and paying tribute. “It is Nelson Mandela’s ability to forgive that is an inspiration to us all,” said May, which was one way of putting it.

As the 1990s wound on, with Mandela and the ANC finally in power and the long, grinding struggle against apartheid receding into the distance, it was inevitable that such contradictions would be smoothed over. Our understanding of him became tinged with a certain apolitical schmaltz, and treating him with reverence and awe became a matter of national consensus. He thus completed his trajectory – from being a controversial hero of the left and enemy of the hard right, to an honorary role at the very heart of the British mainstream.

Two years after the birth of South Africa’s democracy, he made a state visit to the UK, addressed both houses of parliament, gave a speech in Trafalgar Square and visited Brixton (”the soul of black Britain,” he said). He formed an apparently warm bond with the Queen: according to his memoir Conversations With Myself, he considered her “a fine lady …very sharp. There may be a great deal of formality around her, but as an individual she is a very simple person, very plain.”

By 1997, he was being photographed – alongside Prince Charles – with those shameless British exports The Spice Girls, and royally camping it up. “These are my heroines,” he said. “And I don’t want to be emotional, but this is one of the greatest moments in my life.” The footage of the meeting suggests that Geri Halliwell did not quite get the mischievous intent.

That slightly tawdry occasion gave us a flavour of the part of his life that would become more visible after he left power in 1999: charity dinners, celebrity photo ops, more benefit concerts. For a sense of how strange his life could get, picture him at a huge 90th birthday event in Hyde Park in 2008, puzzling over the identity of Amy Winehouse. Yet Mandela’s periodic reappearances in British culture proved that he still carried a powerful political charge. For the British left, he increasingly acted as a distant conscience; for the right, as a living reminder of how badly they had got things wrong.

In August 2006, when David Cameron was deep into his detoxification stage, he used a meeting with Mandela to define himself against the more odorous aspects of the Tories’ past. Mandela, he wrote in the Observer, was “one of the greatest men alive”. He went on: “Some might find such an attitude odd coming from a Conservative. I would say the opposite: the mistakes my party made in the past with respect to relations with the ANC and sanctions on South Africa make it all the more important to listen now. The fact that there is so much to celebrate in the new South Africa is not in spite of Mandela and the ANC, it is because of them – and we Tories should say so clearly.”

In Cameron’s backstory, there lurked one awkward episode: in 1989, while he was working in his party’s research department and Mandela was still in prison, he had gone on an all-expenses-paid trip to South Africa, funded by a firm lobbying against sanctions.

For Labour people, Mandela was often a source of comfort – for even as they underwent ideological gymnastics, they could at least console themselves with the idea that they had always staunchly opposed apartheid and had a bond with Mandela that Conservatives could only dream about. That said, there were also sharp disagreements, not least when he decried the invasion of Iraq. “A big mistake, Peter, a very big mistake,” Mandela told Peter Hain, then serving in cabinet. “It is wrong. Why is Tony doing this after all his support for Africa? This will cause huge damage internationally.” Such was his fury, that in the build-up to war, he identified Tony Blair as “the foreign minister of the United States” claiming he was “no longer prime minister of Britain”.

With one other Labour politician, however, Mandela seemed to maintain altogether better relations. On 11 May 2010, Gordon Brown marked his last hours as prime minister by writing to a man whose life made his own political trials look trifling. Brown used Mandela’s tribal name, and jointly addressed the note to his third wife. “Dear Madiba and Graça,” he wrote, “I wanted my last letter from Downing Street to be to the two people whom I admire most – for your courage, your leadership and your friendship. You have inspired me, and a whole generation, and I will never forget the change you have made to millions of lives … Always your friend, Gordon.”

It was doubtless conceived as a clever piece of political theatre, though it testified to a remarkable fact: that in the eyes of a British prime minister, a man one of his predecessors had deemed a terrorist was now considered the last word in integrity and statesmanship.

The story spoke volumes about South Africa’s accelerated journey and said something profound about the recent history of Britain. Now, as proved by the statue in Parliament Square, alongside those of Disraeli, Lloyd George, and Abraham Lincoln (and, poetically enough, Jan Smuts), Mandela stands unchallenged as a modern hero – but how dark and twisted did things get for that ever to have been a matter of debate?

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