Becoming Political

Becoming Political

I spent a long time being vehemently non-political. I did. I didn’t take Government and Politics when I chose my subjects at 14, nor again at 16. I didn’t even take History because the course was focused on 20th-century political history rather than the periods that actually properly interest me.

I supposed that it was because politics seemed to be about people, and as far as I could work out, I didn’t like people very much. It took me a very long time to realise that being introverted and unsociable didn’t mean I didn’t care about other people, far longer than it should have done. It turns out I care, like, a lot.

My complete lack of interest in anything I perceived as ‘politics’ was even more surprising when put into context. From the age of nine or ten I campaigned and raised money for charities like Stop The Traffik (an anti-trafficking organisation). I cared about the disadvantaged. I sent Christmas cards through Amnesty International to those unjustly imprisoned. When I was baptised, I was given a “Poverty and Justice Bible”, which I like to refer to as my Enjolras Bible.

But this wasn’t ‘politics’, I reasoned. Because politics was about elections and parties and debates, and this was just about helping people.

And then, in late 2010, the student riots about tuition fees happened.

For those who were too young / foreign / uninformed / disinterested to know about them, or those that have forgotten, they resulted after the announcement that fees for UK universities were going to triple. Although there is still a LOT more financial support for British students than for those in the US, and the fees themselves are lower, this came after the Liberal Democrats had promised that should they get in power, they wouldn’t raise tuition fees.

Now, they didn’t exactly get in power, but they became one half of the coalition government (the ConDemNation). And they did absolutely nothing about the decision to raise the cost of tuition, angering everyone who still clung on to the faint hope that politicians might occasionally keep their promises.

So there were riots. Thousands of students – both those who were still at school and would therefore be affected by the new rules and those who were already at university but were angry on behalf of younger friends and siblings – took to the streets. There were Occupy movements, speeches, rallies. Most of it was organised on social media, and those taking part posted videos (just click it please) and content for those elsewhere.

Suddenly, I was interested in politics. Because this affected me. And look, it was basically a revolution. Wasn’t it awful the way they were kettled by the police? Wasn’t the escalating violence problematic? Wasn’t it appalling that we couldn’t trust the promises of politicians in the slightest? Something clicked, and I realised that the things I cared about were actually … le gasp … politics.

I watched the demonstrations on the news, and I read about them. And then I went online, and I ‘liked’ all the Facebook groups for the Occupy movements and watched them coordinate protests and sit-ins and I wanted to go.

But mother person said, “No.” She said, “You’re too young.” She said, “You’ve seen it on TV and you know it’s dangerous.” She said, “You’re supposed to be in school.” They were compelling and infuriating arguments because of course I couldn’t argue with the idea that I should have been in school when I was trying to fight for, you know, education.

One of my friends was up there. I think, like many protestors, he was kind of just there for the sake of it, because he wanted to protest. But I might be wrong. Unlike me, he had strong opinions on the government and, because he was from a poorer background, deeper-seated hatred of the Conservative Party.

So I sat at home and wrote a blog post about it. (And if that isn’t a blast from the past, I don’t know what is. I found it by going to the end of my blog and working backwards, so…)

I’d like to say that at that point, I read up on political theory and how it worked, joined a bunch of activism groups, and got working on it. But I didn’t. I spent a further two years claiming to be mostly disinterested in politics.

And, you know, I can’t pinpoint the moment that I really got involved. I think one day I just looked out of the window and woke the hell up. I began to see how deeply rooted misogyny and heteronormativity were in our society. I began to see how spending cuts were affecting the poor. I began to see how the education system was being manipulated by the government for their own means, how the Arts were being pushed out in favour of subjects like economics and the sciences, how nobody cared about the happiness of students but only about league tables. I began to see how under-25s were being targeted by politicians, and how difficult it was even to live for those on a low income.

And then I got angry. Like, really angry.

The worst kind of fury is when you are so angry about something but there is nothing you can do. I cannot singlehandedly dismantle the patriarchy, much as I would like to. Nobody will listen to my suggestions about curriculum, and I can’t change the economic structure of my country. I find myself arguing with the brother of a friend because he tried to tell me that bankers deserved the money they earned, or that people on benefits were just lazy. I go into Enjolras-mode and just get really obnoxiously furious about capitalism.

I’m an unapologetic leftie and that’s that. And I believe that my generation has the power to mobilise and start the kind of activism that could change this world before those younger than us have to suffer through all the changes we’re seeing, almost all of which are arguable for the worse.

But I’m also well aware that I can’t do that alone. What I can do, though, is spread the petitions and news articles so that everybody gets angry. Because when an entire country gets pissed off, that’s when revolutions happen.

Those student protests that I talked about in 2010 might have been brief and violent, but the occupations lasted longer. And one of those pages I liked on Facebook became a fully fledged organisation, Cambridge Defend Education. It’s still running. It’s where I find links to most of the news I read about current student activism, like the fact that five people were suspended from Sussex University for protesting about the privatisation of education, or the Cops Off Campus movement trying to protect students from police brutality during occupations and demonstrations.

(You have no idea how much I wish I didn’t have school tomorrow, when that demo is happening, so that I could go and join in. No idea.)

I can’t wait until I go to university and can join those students on the picket lines, at the occupations, at the rallies. I want to be involved, because if there’s one thing I believe, it’s that education shouldn’t be elitist and exclusive. The more expensive it becomes and the more debt that arises from going to university, the fewer people are going to be able to have that opportunity. I believe in free speech, and I believe that trying to stop people protesting will only make them angrier.

If you don’t let them lawfully protest, then why should they bother to be lawful? Violently putting down protests only exacerbates the problem, because if being peaceful isn’t allowed, then there’s no reason to hold back, since the response will be the same either way.

I’ve spent three years feeling like I’m watching the revolution from the sidelines and I want to join in. Everybody seems so jaded – they all want change, but no one’s going out there and making it. I grew up in a household where nobody liked what was going on but they never did anything. If I complain about school, even if it’s just about the dress code, my parents will say, “Well, not long now.” Because everything’s a “this too shall pass” scenario.

I’m fed up of waiting for things to pass. I’m fed up of waiting to get out and leaving those younger than me to deal with it. I’m fed up of only caring when it affects me.

There’s a song by Frank Turner that says:

I’m young enough to be all pissed off, but I’m old enough to be jaded
I’m of the age where I want things to change but with age my hopes have faded

I don’t want that to be me. I refuse to give up on making this country, this world, a better place, and I refuse to give up on revolution and become a cynic.

‘Non-political’? That’s not me. And it hasn’t been for quite a long time. But ‘disillusioned with political parties and seriously angry’? Now that’s a label I’m happy to wear.

12 thoughts on “Becoming Political

  1. Politics, it’s a funny old game. Far, far more of what we do is political or done for political reasons than we realise.

    The problem with what we see as politics however, is the generally blinded views pushed out by media, family and friends, and if we take these views as facts. Anyone with a political affiliation of any sort, will tell you views, not facts. Their views may agree with yours, their views may even be right. But they’re not always facts.

    As an example, recently lots of news outlets have been running stories about how the latest round of funding cuts to councils is affecting those in the north far more than those in the south. The percentage of cut is much higher, and therefore those living in the Conservative heartland aren’t suffering as much in this round. Now, while that may be true, it’s not the whole truth. During the years of the Labour government councils in their heartland (especially Manchester where I see it first hand) were given additional funding. Millions of pounds each year were paid to these councils, and the councils spent them. The problem was, they didn’t do it in a sustainable way, the way they invested and spent the money on projects meant that should that money ever stop, the projects would stop. And that’s what’s happening. When the coalition government got in, they stopped the hand-outs to the Labour councils. And rather than stopping spending on their pet projects, those councils have been cutting funding elsewhere. So yes, they’ve been suffering a higher percentage of cuts, but they had more money to cut to start with.

    The tricky part is to find out those facts before taking on someone else’s views. And to do this I’d heartily recommend subscribing to Private Eye, no political affiliations, everyone’s fair game. Plus, they’re probably the last source of investigative journalism in the country.

    Getting political is good, getting angry enough to do something is better. But knowing all the available information so that the anger can be targeted to make the right changes for the right reasons, that’s vital.

    Personally I can’t see much difference in the main political parties at the moment, they’re all too heavily funded by businesses and media companies. If you want to get involved with politics, see if you’ve got a Pirate Party representative in your area.

    1. I’ve wanted to get Private Eye for ages, but I don’t have the money to pay for subscriptions to things. (Which really sucks — I used to get a writing magazine, but had to cancel it due to lack of money.) I compromise by watching Have I Got News For You instead.

      Many local councils get so wrapped up in what they are and aren’t allowed to do that things don’t happen. Father person works in regeneration and housing etc, and he believes they get blamed way too much for stuff that’s not their fault.

      The trouble is that actually getting data and information and explanations is nearly impossible. One person will give you the information, another person the statistics, and if you get an explanation at all it’s more likely an excuse… blehhhh. It’s all so complicated.

      1. It’s far more complicated than it should be, and any attempt so far to make it transparent has only added more layers of complications.

        I would recommend finding out if you’ve got a Pirate Party candidate in your area though, we’ve two up in Manchester and they’re very willing to chat and discuss things, and they’re very open about what they want, without even trying to change anyone’s views.

        1. I’m not sure that we do. I live in a Conservative borough and it’s pretty limited. Last election we had more choice (we had a Green Party candidate) but normally we only have the main ones.

      2. Having only the major parties at elections is also one of the things that limits an individual’s political activity. The ward I’m in is long time Labour, last election was the main three, and that’s it. Central Manchester wards have other parties too.
        But even if you can’t vote for them, and even if they don’t get in, day to day people from the smaller parties work to campaign to solve issues that they see.
        Perhaps find a local issue you care about, see if there’s any meetings about it, and go along and see who turns up. And how they react to you.

  2. Yeah. It’s actually been really interesting seeing some of the same stuff happen in both the US and the UK. Censorship, rising educational costs, protests, and governmental spying (although, as you say, the US definitely has higher educational costs; it is privatized). The sad part is that this is happening under our “liberal” president and your conservative one. Actually, the sad part is that its happening at all.

    Can I admit I’ve been slightly comforted by the fact that we aren’t the only ones who are messed up right now?

    1. Man, the whole world seems to be going down the pan. But it’s not too late to save it. Seriously. We can change anything if we try hard enough.

      Much of what the students are demonstrating about is the privatisation and outsourcing of university services. They’re concerned we’ll end up like the American system, which is not exactly a model of equality!

      1. Hmmm. I never thought of it as “not a model of equality.” I more think of it as “expensive as hell.” If you are a really good student, you can usually get a scholarship. I think most people who really want a degree in the US can get one (perhaps I’m misguided, but I think most Americans believe that). The question is how far in debt that will put them and whether that debt will be worth it. Because it can be a LOT of debt, depending on where you go. Sadly, I don’t think that’s even in the works for change. Hopefully some better college loans, but that’s about it on the agenda (and it’s certainly not on everyone’s agenda).

        I’d say right now I have the most hope for health care and the biggest outrage with government spying. I’m really hoping the next election will bring some serious changes.

  3. It doesn’t look like I can reply again. I completely agree that education is a necessity (and a right, for that matter). I am merely trying to help you understand education from an American’s perspective because it sounds like you understand some of the facts, but unless you go through the school system here, you can’t completely understand how we see it. And I just don’t think we see it the same way you do from the outside. In the system, we pretty much work with what we’ve got. You have a better system and get to be critical, but I would like you to understand how we see it. (So I’m not arguing, I’m really just trying to clarify what we think.)

    I actually come from a fairly poor area (rural poor rather than urban poor). And the cost of college can be off putting, but I’d say that every single person from my high school who was truly inclined to get a higher education did. State schools (universities) can actually be quite reasonably priced and then there’s community college. I don’t think you hear much about those. I am definitely not saying this is a good system. Far from it. But I’ve yet to see much political power behind changing it. I’ve never even seen it suggested. There’s more political power behind health care, and even that’s an upward battle. I consider the right to receive healthcare just as important in a different way (possibly more so). Again, these are more observations on the American viewpoint. I’m not arguing for anything.

    Now all that said, I am a proponent of Elizabeth Warren, the single political voice who actually seems to speak for students. Unfortunately, even she has only proposed very cheap student loans rather than a reform of the whole system. So that’s pretty much the best our politicians are offering up to us. And that’s the “radical” ones.

    In making these statements, I’m not really arguing for anything. In point of fact, I’m sorry, but I’ve kind of detoured from the point of your article. But if I were arguing for something, it would be better education available to all, free of charge. I’m really just discussing what I see as our reality. I find it really interesting to see the things you have to say from a UK perspective b/c it’s cool getting a perspective on world events from outside the worldview I’m presented with on a daily basis, so I’d say I’m trying to share a little of that just b/c it’s what I love about your posts. Of course, it’s pretty darn presumptuous of me to decide to do that b/c you haven’t asked about our system, so hopefully you don’t mind.

    1. No, by all means, I’m happy to hear more about your perspective on education etc – though perhaps comments aren’t the place to do it? I think you have my email address if you wanted to contact me like that. I know your system has a lot of problems and education is only one issue among a myriad of others, many of which, like healthcare, seem more urgent or pressing.

      The trouble with education is that elitism and exclusion can spread from higher education institutions because of the mindset the students develop and therefore it’s difficult to rely on the system becoming fairer when everybody has gone through that system and has kind of had it drilled into them.

      I won’t pretend to have insight into American attitudes and I’d like to discuss it more if you’d like to; my points about the education system are not saying that it is the only thing we need to reform, simply that it’s something I personally feel very passionate about.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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