Exclude a Generation – Expect Anger
The size and anger of the student protests came as something of a shock to the establishment. They came as something of a shock to the media. And they came as something of a shock to those who’d written off our generation as apathetic.
But they shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone. Our generation has grown up in a time of broad ideological stability. Following the collapse of state socialism in the Soviet block Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative” to free market dogma was almost universally accepted. Successive student leaders conceded the abolition of grants, the introduction of up front fees, and the move to £3000 a year top up fees with little resistance. Voter turn-out amongst under-25s plummeted, and the concerns of young people dropped down the political agenda.
It should come as no surprise, though, that a generation that has been systematically economically disenfranchised should react with such anger to what is a clear attack on their future. Our generation is the first to be subjected to a massive claw back of rights by the very wealthy. Where previous generations shared in a social contract that meant a more equal society, our generation is expected to work for lower salaries than our parents, to pay for our education and to live less economically secure lives.
This, however, is what has led to student protests being the largest and most angriest. The boom in home ownership has made people much more concerned with keeping their jobs. This is calculated. The Thatcher government knew that the need to pay a mortgage makes workers considerably less militant. The lack of reaction to the new governments cuts shows how right they were to assume that indebted workers won’t protest.
People have been forced to move from real terms increases in wage levels to maintain their standard of living to increasing indebtedness. Instead of having rising salaries people have borrowed more and more against rises in house prices and on credit cards. This is, of course, part of the root of our current economic problem. But it also ensures that people with high mortgages are much less likely to protest or resist government cuts. Sarah Glynn suggests that Thatcher’s Council House sell-off served elite interests well in this way in her book “Where the Other Half Lives.”
This means that students, who have been excluded from the housing market, not just while they study, but for ten or fifteen years are those most likely to be at the forefront of protest. Burdened with massive student debt and with little chance of getting a worthwhile job in the near future today’s students have nothing left to lose. They will be more militant and more angry than their parents and grandparents.
From the start of the twentieth century the wealthy elites that ran liberal free market states had conceded economic and social rights to less wealthy classes. These concessions included the right to free education, good housing, adequately paid employment and a welfare safety net. It was known as the “Social Democratic Consensus” and resulted in rising living standards for most citizens of liberal free market countries throughout the twentieth century. But with the fall of the Soviet Union the ruling elites developed a new world view. This world view saw the end of communism signalling a huge opportunity to take back the rights.
The hard won rights of the many were, however, difficult to remove. The Thatcher government could only go so far before running into overwhelming social unrest. So while the rights of a generation that had grown up with a welfare state and free education were protected, it was the young who were subjected to the claw-back of rights. Ed Howker and Shiv Malik’s book “Jilted Generation” gives an excellent introduction to this process.
This is why over-60s have retained free bus passes, winter fuel payments (even if they live abroad in warmer climates) and a generous state pension settlement having already enjoyed a huge boom in house prices. Meanwhile the young face a future where they have to live in poor quality private sector rented accommodation. They are expected to pay up to £9000 a year for their education – before their living expenses. There will be a very much diminished welfare state available to us if we fall on hard times.
All of this comes in an economic environment where real wages haven’t risen since 2000 for most people. It is a time when the richest have increased their wealth by 30% or £77bn in the last year. There is no need to cut spending on education, housing or jobs, other than the need to ensure the rich are able to become ever richer. The £77bn compares to a £167bn deficit. It would be easy to tax this huge increase in wealth if government wanted to reduce the deficit. This is a highly ideological attack.
It is nothing less than a wholesale attempt to roll back the social gains won over a century. And this attempt is focused on our generation. Our rulers realise they can’t roll back the benefits that older generations enjoy. This means the attack on our generation is all the more vicious. We must demand the rights of our parents generation. The problem is not their rights and benefits. The problem is the ideological attack on the welfare state and social democratic settlement.
The coming years will no doubt see higher turnout amongst the under-25s – who now realise how brutally they will be treated unless they do vote. But it won’t just mean young people voting more. It will mean more angry young people demanding a better settlement from the ruling elite. Excluding a whole generation from the social democratic settlement will produce an angry and militant response. It is our job to ensure that this results in real gains for our generation, rather than further despondency and disengagement from politics.
The militancy of students will lead militancy of other sections of society as others are disenfranchised. By impoverishing the vast majority of people, by increasing job insecurity, by making it harder for workers to benefit from the wealth they create the elite will create a huge number of people with nothing to lose. And that day isn’t far off. No doubt George Osborne dreams of the austerity measures being introduced in Ireland like reducing the minimum wage and tax rises for the lowest paid. Even if Britain falls short of these measures the naked attack on working people will give many more people much more reason to be angry. And much less to lose.
The time to concede and compromise is over. We must take up political arms. Our futures depend upon it.