Recently, I have had strange longings to be a policeman. It is a phase which passes as swiftly as it comes, but for seconds at a time, I daydream of being a part of the thin blue line, civilization’s helm and hauberk, ensuring order on the streets, face-to-face and unflinching with the malodorous and the many-headed. You may have guessed that I have been watching the footage of the British students rioting at the prospect of having to pay for their own education.
The selfishness of the cause is the most annoying characteristic. This is no well-intentioned idealism, like the march against Iraq—this is about the high-earners of the future moaning that they cannot be expected to help defray the costs of the vastly expensive education from which they will be the only direct beneficiaries. And few things could be more guaranteed to raise the warning hackles of sensible observers than tidings like these, culled from a BBC report on a sit-in at University College London—
Philosopher Noam Chomsky has sent his regards from the United States. Billy Bragg, whose albums are older than many of his audience, has put in an appearance.
Leaving aside the shabbiness of the cause and the awfulness of its celeb supporters, I have been unusually irritated by the nauseating sight of vast numbers of Tarquins and Aramintas punching the SW1 air, waving Socialist Worker Party placards, spouting ignorant clichés, spitting and throwing fire extinguishers and masonry at police, smashing things that don’t belong to them, rocking Charles’s and Camilla’s car while shouting “Off with their heads!”—and then running whimpering to the media because they had to stand around for a couple of hours in the cold, or one of their number has unfortunately put his egg-shaped cranium into the path of a descending baton.
I have never been a student, but I am strongly in favor of those who study worthwhile subjects at worthwhile universities. I could see myself as one of the medical students who saved Notre Dame from the flames in 1789, or a member of one of those sash-wearing German Burstenschäften that harmonizes songs about the Thirty Years War whilst downing industrial quantities of lager.
I am also aware that the police are not always right and rioters’ causes not always wrong. I hope I would have had the courage to be a rioter in Tiananmen Square in 1989, standing up to the rolling tanks like the truly courageous and principled Liu Xiaobo, deservedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this month.
The contrast between those fine, doomed people and the pimpled play-actors presently popping up on Channel 4 does not redound to Britain’s credit. I wonder how many of the Tarquins and Aramintas would have dared to be a student in Tiananmen Square,facing police and army who care nothing for proportionate response, public image or “human rights.”
The student-bar revolutionaries we have in the UK are only ever revolutionary up to a point. Even when things become really fractious, they are safe because they are filming and Facebooking everything, and whatever happens their footage and interpretation can be artfully edited and will always be accepted at face value by indulgent broadcasters who share their hissy fits at authority. Students are responsible adults when making their points, and children when it all goes horribly wrong. Faced with the prospect of tough police, almost none of the thousands of students and schoolchildren who came out in the UK would have turned out—they only came because they know that whatever they do or whatever they say, the British police are obliged to operate within such tight constraints that even the most serious rioting is about as dangerous as Bertie Wooster stealing a bobby’s helmet on May Day.
The vote having been won by the government, and by a safe margin, it may well be that the heat will go out of the student protests as quickly as it arose. But they have threatened further action, and at least a minority of them will doubtless hitch their bandwagons to the next wave of protests that come along, as the public sector cuts start to be felt next year. No doubt there will be many more occasions in 2011 when I will feel drawn to the Dark-blue Side of the Force.