A hostile mob? Farage got off lightly

A hostile mob? Farage got off lightly
by Douglas Marr
21.05.13

So what to make of last week’s so called Farage barrage on the Royal Mile? Like most people I rely on television evidence to gain an impression of what occurred. On that basis I find it astonishing that so much has been made of such a small-scale event.

On my admittedly small television there was little evidence of the ‘hostile mob’ that made it necessary to place Mr Farage in the safekeeping of Edinburgh’s finest. Even the usually reliable Channel Four News fell into the trap of hyperventilating about something akin to what passes for normal on the Royal Mile at a weekend. It’s a pretty poor politician that can’t take that sort of happening in his stride. Enoch Powell wouldn’t have seen such a puny group of demonstrators in his way.

Perhaps the over-reaction is down to the comparative absence of student protest in recent years. Off the cuff I can think of only one major protest by young people – in November 2010 – and that was about the rising cost of further and higher education and which affected students directly. Otherwise the student voice has been largely muted in relation to the myriad of national and international injustices that have taken place over the past 30 years.

That is in stark contrast to student protest and politics of the 1960s some of which didn’t achieve much, but at least demonstrated that young people had an interest in and concern about things beyond the price of a pint in the beer bar. The anti-Vietnam war protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s were a case in point. Few would wish to justify the violent protests that took place in Grosvenor Square in March 1968 and which resulted in serious injury to police and demonstrators alike. Nevertheless it can be argued that the intensity of those protests did much to stiffen the resolve of the Wilson government to keep Britain out of Vietnam.

Students and young people figured prominently in the 2003 protests against the ‘coalition of the willing’s’ intervention in Iraq. Yet that protest did not have the impact of earlier Vietnam protests. The anti-Iraq war protests were not sufficiently sustained and did not seem to interest or engage the young in the way that those 30 or 40 years ago had done. Mr Blair did not feel sufficiently threatened to change course.

It wasn’t just Vietnam of course. A couple of years ago I had a meeting with the principal of a Scottish university and whom I had known for many years. During the meeting he inquired whether I had been in his office before. He was more than a little surprised when I told him that, as a matter of fact I had, as far back as 1967. He was even more surprised that the elderly, greying gent before him had been part of a group that had occupied the then principal’s office in protest against the university’s shareholdings in apartheid South Africa. Foolish? Juvenile? Probably, but the university divested itself of the questionable portfolio the following year.

I was not personally involved in the 1969 protest against the touring Springboks at Aberdeen’s Linksfield Stadium. There were 98 arrests, mostly local students. If my memory serves me well, John Lennon paid their fines and a bloke called Gordon Brown was one of the organisers of the Scotland-wide protests. I often wonder what happened to him. (Brown not Lennon.) The local and national press castigated the protestors but there is little doubt that South Africa’s sporting isolation had a morale-sapping impact and contributed in no small way to the gradual erosion of the apartheid regime.

I am of course being unfair to current university students, many of whom are deeply concerned about national and international injustice. Many are active in Amnesty and other humanitarian organisations. Additionally, the situation of present day students is hugely different to those of us who were fortunate enough to attend university in the 1960s and 1970s.

Through the grant system we were paid to attend. We were virtually assured of a job on graduation. We were free from the worry of re-paying a substantial student loan. Few of us had to take up term time employment. As a result we had the time and resources to make a nuisance of ourselves and to be thorns in the side of those in authority, however defined.

In contrast, today’s students have a hard time of it. A great many have to take on minimum wage work in bars and shops. They are only too well aware that graduation brings a substantial degree of debt. The continuing recession ensures that employment is by no means guaranteed particularly for those who have not undertaken directly vocational courses of study.

So who can blame today’s students for feeling that they have enough burdens of their own without taking on the cares of the world? It’s scarcely surprising that many just want to keep their heads down, get as good a degree as possible and use any discretionary time for socialising. That mindset was clearly illustrated in 2010 when Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University debased itself and its honorary degrees by conferring such a degree on a Mr Donald Trump of Manhattan. One might have expected some adverse student reaction but protest was largely limited to a former principal of the university, a student of the 60s, who returned his honorary degree.

Young people and the rest of us have lost something valuable as a result of the current inward focus of much of the student body. Being young is the time to be angry and idealistic and to experiment with ideas and views. It’s a time to noisily espouse causes and challenge the establishment and its certainties. Above all it’s the time to prick the national conscience and to question pragmatic ‘solutions’. Let’s hope that Mr Farage’s Royal Mile experience shows that the fire is still smouldering.

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