Students have put politics back on the streets again: this is an object lesson for everyone who wants a better world, argues Lindsey German
The many thousands of school students who walked out of their classes on Friday were a credit to their generation and managed to put the question of climate change centre stage as one of the most serious challenges that we all face. It is now beyond dispute that the earth is warming very quickly, that this is caused by a range of issues but that capitalism’s constant championing and favouring of private motorised transport is a major factor, and that unless there are very radical changes to the way that we live, work and treat the environment, then we all face a future which is unbearable to even think about.
But think about it is precisely what we must do and more importantly act on what we already know - from the melting polar icecaps to rising sea levels to the extinction of many species of insects. Climate change will affect us all and will change the livelihoods of millions of people around the globe. This will not only mean devastation in large parts of the world, but it will mean people moving in large numbers to escape the effects of climate change - water and food shortages, land turned uncultivable, rising sea levels.
They will become the new refugees and migrants and we will need to find ways of organising the world which does not result in more misery and scapegoating for them.
It hardly needs to be said that any thought of doing so is not remotely in the concerns of Theresa May and her government. Instead they, like most governments in the world, do little to seriously tackle the various challenges of climate change, instead paying lip service to limited change but not implementing the sorts of green policies which could begin to defeat the threat.
Theresa May has a long record of gauche ineptitude but surely her remarks on Friday that these school students would be better staying in school to study in order to be better equipped to deal with climate change is one of her most bizarre. These are young people who are fed up with official prevarication on the question, determined to take direct action to change things, and who, if the widespread interviews and vox pops are anything to go by, have a much better understanding of the issues concerned than the average MP.
There are wider issues involved here, however. One is that we are now seeing repeated actions by young, sometimes very young, people over political questions. The anti-war movement in 2002-2003 saw two huge school student strike days and many other militant actions. In 2010, the student movement included large numbers of school students protesting at the removal of EMA for sixth form students. And now huge numbers have protested on climate change and will do so again next month.
This represents a much greater level of political involvement than for previous generations and also suggests that children and young people are becoming aware of politics at a much younger age. It suggests that such organisation is something we will see more of in future.
The second point is that these strikes showed the importance of protest. News coverage moved - albeit all too briefly - from endless Brexit boredom to the dynamics of a movement and its concerns. We need much more of this and not just from the very young. The more we take politics onto the streets and the more we challenge the establishment consensus, the more we make the political weather. A lesson which the very sizeable forces on Labour’s left need to take on board quickly.
Used, abused, and abandoned?
Shamima Begum is a very different case, of course. The 15-year-old Bethnal Green schoolgirl who left Britain 4 years ago with two friends in order to live in the ISIS ‘caliphate’ in Syria is now 19, a captive living in a refugee camp, two of her children dead and with a newborn baby. It’s hard from interviews to grasp what she believes, but let us assume that she still holds on to the beliefs that led her to go to Syria in the first place.
They are beliefs with which I have no sympathy, and are very much opposed to the views of most Muslims in Britain. Having said that I am very surprised that so many people are saying that she should not be allowed back into Britain, the country where she was born and spent her formative years and of which she is a citizen. Some are of course the usual suspects - the obnoxious Sajid Javid and various right wing commentators. But there are many left wingers, including a number of Muslims, who are also taking this view.
There is no justification for it. Whatever she did in support of ISIS should be condemned, and if she comes back to Britain she should face charges for any criminal acts she may have committed. But she was a child when she made the decision, has been married to an ISIS fighter and had three children and must have seen some terrible things. There surely should be some compassion towards her.
In addition Britain has no right to make its citizens stateless, however much we might disapprove of some of their actions. Javid argues that because her parents came from Bangladesh, she could become a citizen there. But that should surely be her choice and that of the Bangladesh government, not of Javid. Would this even be a thought if the case were of a young woman who was a British citizen with, say, Australian or American parents? I doubt it somehow. And I just wish that those who are so keen to prosecute wars in the Middle East, which helped to create the conditions which produced ISIS, would occasionally take some responsibility for their own actions.
Will they stay or will they go?
Every day now there seems to be a new rumour about a new party in British politics, with Labour right wingers at the centre of it, alongside the Tory Anna Soubry and of course the Lib Dems. Top names behind it are Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Chris Leslie. To many Labour supporters, the response is good riddance, and that is totally understandable, given the record of disloyalty to the leadership experienced from sections of Labour’s right.
So far, there seems to be a lot of rumour, then pulling back. That’s because any breakaway will have very big problems given the electoral system - and also given that Labour has decisively turned its back on the Blairism that such a centre party would espouse. But we should be clear that the aim of such a party is only partly electoral. It also has a central political point which is to destroy the chances of the present left leadership of Labour from attaining office.
So while it is partly about Brexit, that is only some of the story. If you look at the reasons given for setting up a new party, they include antisemitism and Venezuela as well as deselection threats and calls for a second referendum. There will be some who want a break, others will be looking to move policies to the right. Either way, a serious threat and its main aim is to damage Corbyn.
When the face fits...
Backpfeifengesicht - that’s the wonderful German word meaning a face that should be slapped.
I nominate defence minister Gavin Williamson for the honour this week, following his speech on Britannia ruling the waves which managed to be both ludicrous and dangerous at the same time. It also managed to offend China with its announcement that the new aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth will carry out its first engagement in the South China Sea. The Chinese government responded by cancelling Jeremy Hunt’s trip to discuss trade post Brexit. Well done. Someone should tell Williamson that we’re not in the 19th century any more.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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