Students, class, protest and politeness

When somebody used the word “class” I cringed and thought to myself: “I wish they wouldn’t do that.”

The speaker was one of the students occupying a hall at University College London, and we were talking about why they were doing it. My reaction, I can see on reflection, was entirely misguided — a symptom of a problem the students are complaining about.

Why shouldn’t they talk about class? It may not play well with the mainstream press, who will mock the idea of students identifying with working people, but what does the mainstream press know? What century are they in? Far, far more of today’s students actually have something in common with working people than when Paul Dacre (Daily Mail) or Tony Gallagher (Daily Telegraph) or Alan Rusbridger (Guardian) were undergraduates.

When a student from a working-class background penetrates third level education it is no longer the exciting, laudable, affirming exception. It hasn’t been for years and years and years. But you wouldn’t know that from the national papers, which for the most part continue to exist in a ludicrous Brideshead timewarp.

Which makes you wonder about the question the students are asking; how can they get their message across in the mainstream press? How can they persuade reporters to take them seriously, and to drop all that drivel about spoiled brats and window breakers?

Then there is the problem of protest. In the modern mode, there is no such thing as legitimate protest, unless it is so dainty and polite that it qualifies more as an exercise in collective etiquette than an expression of anger. Go ahead and protest, we say, but don’t get in anybody’s way for as much as a minute, and on no account give offence.

These students are angry, and I’m happy to say, on the basis of a couple of hours’ observation, they are well aware that being polite is not an end in itself. They are serious and thoughtful and there are things they want, and they appear to know that conforming to the mainstream rulebook will get them nowhere.

They have tried that. A whole lot of them politely voted Liberal Democrat last May, very often on the strength of that notorious pledge about tuition fees. Are they now supposed to wait five years for the opportunity to put that right by not voting Lib Dem?

No. Because it won’t put it right. It would mean the Liberal Democrats had five years in power based on a lie, and were free to use it to mock and damage the people who voted for them. Remember, no party fought the last election on a programme of cuts, not even the Conservatives.

I know British people are supposed to be polite, but it is taking good manners a little too far to suggest that the first-time voters of 2010 have to sit back and watch a government that lied to them slowly dismember their university system.

The Dacre-Rusbridger-me-Blair-Cameron generation is the sub-prime, casino, PFI, never-never generation. It has no right to heap its debts and failures on its children, and it will only get away with it if those children fall for its outdated ideas of class and good behaviour. I hope they don’t.

The occupiers are tweeting at @UCLOccupation, emailing at ucloccupation[at]gmail[dot]com and blogging at

Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London. Follow him on twitter at @BrianCathcart

PAST EVENT: The Idea of Human Rights and Foreign Policy, 15 June, University College London

The Idea of Human Rights and Foreign Policy

15 June


Free (registration required)

Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, University College London


UCL Institute for Human Rights and King’s College London present a selection of leading legal and political academics to discuss the nature and function of human rights. The panel will discuss their own attitudes towards human rights before taking questions from the audience.

Speakers Include:

Dr Katrin Flikschuh (LSE);

Professor Henry Shue (Oxford University);

Professor Charles Beitz (Princeton University)

Professor Joseph Raz (Oxford University & Columbia University)

Professor David Held (LSE)

Professor John Tasioulas (Oxford University)

More details at