4 October 2014

The repression of student activism in Britain

Since the demonstrations protesting tuition fee increases in 2010-11, student political activists in Britain have been subject to unprecedented levels of repression.

The coalition government which came to office in May 2010 had as its overriding objective, the bolstering of capitalism in Britain following the near financial collapse in 2008. Central to that project was slashing state expenditure and holding down wages through facilitating high levels of unemployment and promoting the extensive use of zero-hour contract work among the employed. Real incomes and the economic security for working people declined markedly.

In the face of this, aside from a couple of TUC sponsored lacklustre marches, the British working class remained passive in the face of the onslaught. Opposition instead sprung up from Britain’s students in response to the trebling of university tuition fees. The waves of street demonstrations in 2010-11 were met by heavy police repression, which involved inter alia the so-called kettling of demonstrators as a form of collective punishment. Kettling means, rather than disperse demonstrators, people are confined to street holding pens, which are then gradually constricted until the density of the sardine can is achieved. Masses of people - and passers-by as well can be ensnared in the kettle - are held without access to food, water, toilets or medical care for several hours before release. The borders of the kettled area and maintained by temporary iron fencing, baton-wielding police, dog handlers and mounted police.

In facing their collective punishment, demonstrators, however innocent of any wrongdoing, had to remain utterly passive. Even meagre attempts at resisting - eg. throwing empty plastic water bottles - earned the perpetrators several months in jail. In this political environment only highly committed activists could sustain such a repressive onslaught, and the demonstrations quickly petered out.

The intention of government and police was to rapidly crush and punish student protest and, by doing so, to send a clear message to anybody else (e.g. Uncut and the Occupy Movement) who might wish to politically oppose government. Yet, having succeeded so convincingly, and facing no more than a tiny minority of students involved in discussion and direct action groups, the state nonetheless has stepped up its surveillance and suppression of student political activity.

In periods of social calm, police action against against political activism has two strands: first, a comprehensive range of surveillance is deployed. Following the Snowden revelations, we know that British GCHQ monitoring of the internet and other electronic communication is ubiquitous - even if we are not sure exactly how information is filtered to police on the ground. Electronic surveillance is accompanied by the recruitment of hundreds of police informants in civic organisations by means of payment, blackmail and intimidation of activists. And on top of that, the British state has embedded over a thousand long-term spies, masquerading as political activists, in civic organisations.

Not all surveillance is covert. Police have resorted to a form of intimidation called overt surveillance in which they call selected political activists and journalists by name on the street, follow them conspicuously and make unsolicited “friendly” visits to people in their homes.

The second strand, in addition to surveillance, is the heavy and oppressive policing of protests and protesters. In November 2013, student leader, Michael Chessum, was arrested for not informing the police about an on campus demonstration, and only released on condition that he did not "engage in protest on any University Campus and not within half a mile boundary of any university." And even small protests are met with vans of police arriving with riot gear and dogs. Even though protest and political activity in public places is for the most part legal, the police attempt to portray and label it illegitimate and suppress it.

What is the reason for the excessive surveillance and repression of student political activity in Britain? One factor is that police everywhere tend to expand their remit unless or until they are checked by the government and courts, and that restraining hand has been lacking, simply because the government has invariably sought to side with police. A second factor is an government led ideological assault on civil liberties: political activity has been redefined as a social nuisance, free speech is categorised as “causing offence.” Thus political activity becomes something that police legitimately monitor and clamp down on.

The reason for this illiberalism - whether sponsored by New Labour, or now the Tories and Liberal Democrats - originates in a state and establishment fear of ordinary people. Today, Britain is, and is ever more becoming, a massively unequal society, with any talk of a single citizenry a mere ideological puff. At the top multi-billionaires float off into the stratosphere of wealth, while a million poverty-stricken people at the bottom seek food from food banks or starve. Increasingly, large sections of middle England are slipping downwards into insecurity and relative poverty.

That being the case, it is not hard to see from the establishment point of view the danger of Britain falling apart - or at least the potential for widespread social strife. Seen in those terms, watching, and if possible crushing, effective opposition makes a great deal of sense.

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