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Last week, three things happened which will provide plenty of column inches for this paper over the coming weeks. Chronologically the first thing to happen was that Professor Paul Wellings, this University’s Vice Chancellor, wrote a comment piece in the Guardian newspaper calling for “constructive debate” not protests. The second was the protest that inspired the comment piece, the march of 52,000 students and lecturers through the streets of London. The third we’ll simply refer to as the storming of Millbank.
The French connection is no coincidence. It is unlikely that in centuries to come the people of Britain will celebrate Millbank day in the same way the French embrace Bastille day, but then the French have always been better at seeing their revolutions through than us. We chopped off the head of one monarch, they lobbed off the heads of an entire class.
And yet, the general mood since last Wednesday, if you can see through the haze of indignation pumped out by the right wing press, is that ordinary people are angry and that sitting around and moaning isn’t going to cut it anymore. The direct action taken on November 10 was carried out just as much by ordinary students like you as it was by the militant left. This paper was there in Millbank, and the students it saw chanting and burning placards were no different to the ones you would see in any college bar on a Friday night.
The prevailing feeling is that politely asking to be included in the conversations the grown ups are having about our future isn’t going to change anything. Eggs have to be broken to make an omelette, and sometimes windows have to be broken before the government listens.
History will show that polite conversations rarely achieve anything, at least not anything lasting enough that it is remembered. What is remembered is the Bastille, is the gunpowder plot. John Stewart Mill may have supported women’s right to the vote, but it was the suffragettes, not the philosopher who won it.
None of this is to say that violence should be condoned. Had the fire extinguisher that was thrown from the roof of the tower hit anyone then the debate would have rightly turned into an outright condemnation of the whole protest. Through sheer providence it did not, and no one can deny it would have been better had it never been thrown at all. But the anger and the action taken by the 1000 within Millbank should not be pinpointed to just one moment of madness by a man many within the protest felt went too far.
Only one person in Millbank wanted that fire extinguisher to be thrown. The rest wanted their voices to be heard and tired of talking, they decided to shout.