On 10 November 2010, fifty thousand students marched through the streets of London demanding the government scrap its plans to restructure higher education. Windows were smashed at Tory HQ, Millbank, and a fire extinguisher thrown off the roof of the building, unleashing a media storm. But the real story was the rebirth of the student movement. A wave of university occupations, protests and direct action gripped the country, while simultaneous agitation was spreading across Europe, California and North Africa.
Although the UK student movement has been “leaderless”, a few faces have become synonymous with the struggle in our personality-obsessed media – none more so, than the formidable Clare Solomon. The ULU President’s infamous stand-off with Jeremy Paxman and NUS President Aaron Porter on Newsnight, refusing to denounce the protestors at Millbank, inspired many a radical student, invited the wrath of the right and the curiosity of the liberal left.
This week Verso is publishing its book on the student movement – Springtime: The New Student Rebellions; and what better person to edit it than Clare. Springtime chronicles the uprisings in the UK, Italy, Greece, France, California and Tunisia. Along with essays by activists, it is interspersed with tweets, occupation maps, images and historical “flashbacks” recalling previous student movements. I met up with Clare to critically discuss her first book.
What was the purpose of the book?
Anybody that saw any of the media portrayal of the student protests last year may take away from that a certain vision either of what the protests were about or how they were carried out. Therefore I think it’s important that we record history in our own voices in an attempt to cut through the media bias. So the purpose of the book was to try to bring as many different perspectives and topics together ensuring that all political persuasions were covered, different ages and a gender balance to highlight and to celebrate how magnificent the protests were.
But do you think the people who believe the media hype about the protests will read the book or will it be people who were involved in the protests who are more likely to read it?
I do think it’ll have a broader appeal than just those who are already involved and that’s one of the purposes as well – to inspire more people to get involved both in student activism and the wider struggle against the cuts.
How did you choose the contributors for the book?
Initially I set up a blog to crowd-source information but I quite quickly realized that to give it some focus I needed to guide the narrative, otherwise I was ending up with far too much of the same stuff. So after a couple of weeks of receiving submissions I had to see where the gaps were and deliberately commission those to fit in. I was particularly careful to make sure there was no sectarianism. If there was any hint of sectarianism I ensured that it was re-worded because I don’t think that’s good for the movement. I tried to make sure there was autonomous stuff, anarchist stuff, people from various different groups, political parties, non-parties, older people, younger people…
You’ve interspersed the contemporary texts with historical “flashbacks”. How did you choose those and why did you decide to do that?
I think it’s important to show the connection between what is going on now and what has happened historically. We choose them in conjunction with Verso – a lot of it came from what they’ve already published. The 60s, the explosion of student activism, produced a plethora of amazing artwork and analysis, so it was quite easy to get hold of.
Were you surprised how relevant it was? When I was reading the book sometimes I thought I was carrying on reading the contemporary work, then realized it was a flashback.
It’s amazing isn’t it, how the system works? How it doesn’t really change. Well we haven’t had a revolution yet have we? So it’s not surprising that the system hasn’t changed that much and this is the big debate between reform and revolution isn’t it? Does reform just appease the system and pacify people, make it harder to fight?
There are a lot of similarities between the UK, European countries and California – they’re all struggling against the privatization of education. But the Tunisian struggle is slightly different because it’s about removing a dictator. So why did you think it was connected and why did you include it?
Clearly there’s a connection in that we live under capitalism, we live under a system that is global and it’s important for us to show solidarity to each other, to make those connections so that people know that it’s not just us in Britain fighting against the government. Of course, we can’t make comparisons in that the effects that we are feeling here are nowhere near as dramatic as what’s been happening in Egypt and Tunisia. But there is always crossover from different countries, different issues, different subjects, where people can learn from each other. It’s a multi-dimensional process, so I thought it was important to make that connection.
There’s quite a strong anti-capitalist theme throughout the book, do you think that’s entirely representative of the student movement? In the UK there are people involved who aren’t necessarily anti-capitalist, they were just against the Browne Report.
It was people on the left traditionally associated with anti-capitalist movements that pushed and argued for the protests in the first place, and I think the point of us doing that is to try to bring in as many people as possible. It has to be a mass movement. We’re not going to bring down the government or make significant changes if it’s just a small group of lefties talking to themselves. It has to be about reaching out and bringing in the wider movement.
I don’t think the book was intended to be deep analysis. I think it’s too soon to take a position like that, to attempt that. But I did feel that there were things in there that were not from the organized Left. Some of the FE quotes, for example. Also, mainstream views – mainstream in the sense of the anti-Browne views – I think have a lot of oxygen already and it’s important to give the other viewpoints an airing.
In the introduction it says – “We hope that its cumulative impact [the book’s] will be to develop alternatives that challenge the priorities of capitalist society”. I felt that theme ran throughout the book. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I just thought it was quite an interesting editorial decision to go down that route.
I think you have to be politically principled and produce the more radical alternatives, the more radical approaches. I’m not going to sell-out and produce a nice lovely liberal book for you!
Do you think the book was premature because you’ve got Tunisia in there, but only a postscript on Egypt and nothing on Bahrain, Yemen or Libya. The article on LSE didn’t mention the funding of Gadaffi or Howard Davies’ resignation, and then there’s March 26… Or is there another book waiting to be written?
History doesn’t start or finish at one particular time – even if the deadline for the book was next week, there’ll still be things happening after it. I think it was specifically about the recent student uprisings. Or course students are going to continue protesting, of course things are going to continue developing, so you make a decision as to when you want the book out and it was felt that it was important for the book to be out around this time, for people to see what’s been going on, to reflect on it and hopefully give them some inspiration to link up with the wider movement against cuts. So no I don’t think it was premature.
There were a lot of women contributors in the book…
I made sure of that!
Do you think that’s because women are more politically involved now or because their voices are respected more?
First of all, it’s through political activity – activism – that people gain confidence regardless of their background whether it’s women or people from other oppressed groups, and so it gives women the confidence to put pen to paper. However it is still a struggle. In political meetings, in political situations, it’s still a struggle getting women to actually commit their thoughts in a specific way; partly through fear of not being taken seriously, I think. It’s very noticeable at political meetings when it comes to the questions and answers, it’s almost 100% guaranteed to be the men that have their hand up first. We have accumulated experience of not being encouraged to take a lead. We can only hope through this recent activism that it has given women the confidence to contribute. However, I was also deliberately ensuring that women did speak in it. I made sure it was a good gender balance. That was one of my directives.
Are you surprised by how much activism there’s been recently?
I don’t think surprised is quite the right word. I think this is expected. It’s not surprising that students were angry about what the government is doing to our education and the wider society and if you’re going to do that, people are going to be provoked and will resist. People don’t just go on protests and break windows and whatever for the fun of it; they do it for a particular reason – cause and effect. I’m not surprised but definitely pleased that this is the year that I’ve been doing what I’m doing. I’m very glad to be a student this year.
Maeve McKeown is a student activist and blogger at UCL. Clare Solomon is President of the University of London Union (ULU). Springtime is published by Verso and is available now.