SOAS arrests: Where are the Lib Dems on protest rights?
“I was personally punched and thrown down the stairs by officers.”
Meet Alex. He’s a postgrad student at UCL. On Monday he joined a peaceful demonstration at SOAS against Higher Education Minister David Willetts. This is how the police responded. There were accounts of officers and security guards forcing protesters onto the ground and repeatedly kicking them. One person was left with a bleeding head. 5 were arrested.
The week after last year’s election, some friends and I set up a campaign – ‘No shock doctrine for Britain‘. One of the things we hoped to do was help those who we believed would soon be fighting the then impending government cuts to understand their context as part of a radical right wing ideological framework.
It was clear at the time that both Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Orange Bookers were about to commit to a significant re-structuring of the UK economy. Cuts, privitisation and deregulation were to be ushered in under the cover of the dust cloud lingering after the collapse of financial capitalism. This troika of destruction has followed in the wake of disasters the world over ever since Milton Friedman told his followers that “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.” The Lib Dem/Tory consensus on this was clear. When we made our case, most accepted it.
Such economic shock therapy has never come on its own. People don’t simply sit idly by as our communities are ripped apart. These policies always been forced through with the violent protection of the state. Police oppression is not a seperate problem from radical capitalism. It is a pre-condition. Around the world, privatisation and corporate control have not been delivered not by democracy. They have walked hand in hand with violence, brutality and opression of dissent.
But when we made this case, many questioned it. I did too, on occasion. While few with any sense of history would doubt the willingess of the Tories to have skulls split in their name, many of us thought better of the Lib Dems. Because while it is radicals who change the world, liberals have always had their backs. At many a protest in recent years, Liberal Democrat activists have taken on the role of legal observer; their MPs have been the first to defend the right to protest. To take one example, some of their MPs visited climate camp then worked hard to hold the police accountable for their brutality there. For liberals, the principle of free engagement in politics is often more important than the policies this engagement secures.
So there did seem to be some hope that the Lib Dems would use whatever influence they might have to ensure restraint. That hope was soon dashed. Where were the Lib Dems when Alfie Meadows was assaulted? When thousands of young people were kettled, criminalised, beaten up? Often, the same liberal activists were wearing the same yellow vests, still acting as legal observers. They still have our backs. But their MPs have abandoned them. Their party has abandoned them. Government ministers do not formally directly control the police. But senior politicians have a duty to speak out when justice is not done, and their influence is unquestionable.
The principle of Clegg’s centre right liberalism is that of individual autonomy: economic invidualism and with strong individual rights: free market capitalism and freedom from state oppression. But in trying to deliver their Orange Book utopia, Clegg has a problem. Few share his vision. We won’t sit back and watch as he smashes the public institutions we dearly love. We think there is such a thing as society. Free people stand up to the ‘free’ market. And so he has to choose. He can either force through the free market, or he can have the free people.
At SOAS on Monday, we were reminded that he has made his choice. My generation is unlikely to forget.
This piece first appeared on Our Kingdom