Susan Matthews is the mother of Alfie Meadows, who was seriously injured on the student demonstration on 9th December, and who has recently been charged for violent disorder. This article is her contribution to Springtime: The New Student Rebellions.
Since 9 December, when my son was injured at the student protests in London, I have been haunted by a print by William Blake known as ‘Albion Rose’. It is one of those images that are too familiar, too clicheÃÅd even, to see properly - forever owned by the 1960s. Although created in the 1790s, it was inscribed by Blake with the date 1780, the year in which rioting mobs ruled London for a week, burned down prisons and threatened the Bank of England. For most contemporary observers, the Gordon Riots of 1780 were an ugly outbreak of fanaticism, a horror best swiftly forgotten. Yet Blake’s image is strangely exultant, a collective figure of the nation (or the world) reborn.
Since 9 December, I’ve been contacted by people I would never otherwise have met. Parents tell me of their pride in their children’s commitment to defending education. Activists write to warn of the difficult road to psychological recovery. Political economists have shared their analysis of the government’s destructive project. Some, as well, reveal their scepticism. One such was the fellow academic concerned that many of the protesters were not themselves affected by the cuts - to him, a sign of bad faith. Unbuttoned by the anonymity of the web, others pour scorn on the middle-class protester - drawn to the melee, perhaps, by the buzz of chaotic energy; or worse, unwilling to fund bursaries for the poor.
For some, it is hard to see protest as anything other than a collective outbreak of madness. For too long the educated few have imagined themselves as standing against the forces of unreason embodied in the mob. This story is well told in Adam Curtis’s BBC series, The Century of the Self, or in John Carey’s 1992 account of the snobberies underlying modernist aesthetics in The Intellectuals and the Masses. Exactly this fear emerged in David Cameron’s response to the student protest in which my son was injured. So careful up to that point to appear the voice of consensus and compassion, Cameron now took sides: it was ‘us’ against ‘them’. Protesters had behaved in an ‘absolutely feral way’ and violence (he claimed) pervaded the protest.
Like Cameron I am a product of Oxford, but unlike him I have a wider experience of education, having taught for twenty years in a post-1992 university. I know that educational excellence is not the preserve of elite institutions. In the marketing of universities, students are encouraged to choose according to facilities or reputation or glossy advertisements. Working in a university, I would instead choose according to evidence. My son chose to study at the leading department for the study of modern European philosophy, which was at Middlesex, a post-1992 university. His department was closed because it offered a high staff-to-student ratio and a large proportion of postgraduate students: the kind of educational experience that is normal for Russell Group students.
Walking to Parliament Square on 9 December I felt out of place, and wondered whether to stop off at Tate Britain instead. But the collective punishment of ‘kettling’ makes no distinctions among protestors. My loyalty is to those who waited: cold, fearful, angry and baffled at the apparent determination of the police to provoke. It is the voice of the protestors that demonstrates logic, cutting through the smokescreen of ‘reform’. I am moved that so many of the protestors will not themselves be hit by the hike in fees or the loss of EMA. To doubt the possibility of altruism is to imagine a bleak future.
Since 9 December I see Blake’s hackneyed image in a new way. Blake witnessed the riots; he was caught up inadvertently in the mob. Being there, he must have seen things that contemporary accounts did not record. The images that stay with me from the student protests are not those of the violence splashed over the front pages (which I did not myself witness) or of ‘victims’ injured and beaten (though I sat by the bedside of my son). Instead, what I remember is the determination of a varied group of people to resist unfair treatment, to question a false narrative of necessity, and to protect the fragile gains of decades of expansion of higher education.
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