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Les Misérables 2020: Bring On the Student Rebellion

Byron Dean is a writer whose work covers a wide range of topics including travel, politics, food, and culture.

I’m no middle-class Tory, but suffice it to say that if Tunbridge Wells is outraged, you can generally rest assured that I have been outraged for some time already. It has never seemed to me to be unnatural to combine political radicalism with social and moral conservatism. Yet COVID-mania means the world is changed, changed utterly – and a terrible beauty has been born. In just the last few days, for example, I have found myself praising uber-feminist Harriet Harmen of all people, for supporting the doomed Graham Brady amendment to the Coronavirus Act.

Likewise, I watched the supposedly outrageous footage of students at Coventry University partaking in their supposedly feckless debauch without so much as a raised eyebrow. In happier times I might have grumbled something about Aldous Huxley and impudent strumpets, before taking myself off for a long, restorative appointment with a cup of strong, milky tea and a copy of the Nicomachean Ethics. Instead, I instinctively blurted out: ‘good for them’.

But according to reports I’ve seen in the media, purse-lipped Puritans across the land feel differently, apparently believing the students’ behaviour to be ‘shocking’. Even in the days when such footage would have done nothing for me apart from leaving me shaking my head and reaching for teapots and Aristotle, I’m not sure I’d have chosen this particular word to describe it. But in the present circumstances, given that large numbers of young men and women are away from home for the first time, have had their lives ruined by the incompetence of their parents’ generation, are forbidden all day and night from going outside or pursuing normal activities, are saddling themselves with huge debts in order to pay for the privilege of this experience, and are confined together in a building full of booze and beds, the fact that they should find their only solace in partying the night away and performing the rites of Venus, seems to me to be just about the only thing which has happened in the last few months which is entirely not-shocking-at-all.

I’m not saying the students should have done it, though I’m not convinced they’ve really done much wrong either. But how amusing it is that journalists and politicians who like to present themselves as worldly and knowing, and who when faced with the spectacles of the permissive society usually situate themselves somewhere in the hinterland of judgement between defeatism and actual encouragement, should now work themselves into a moral panic over something so predictable and banal. Had they expected the flower of the nation to congregate loyally in socially-distanced groups of six, singing Hail to the Chief in quivering tones before glowing portraits of Al Johnson? Please. They must have mistaken them for their parents.

Graffiti in a classroom during the 1968 student riots

Graffiti in a classroom during the 1968 student riots

The Government and its many supine toadies in the media have given students a very hard time of it lately. They are foolish to underestimate the power which young, passionate, angry people can wield. Student riots almost brought Charles De Gaulle's infant Fifth Republic to its knees in 1968, and it takes only a rudimentary knowledge of 19th Century European history to know that those riots, which defined and divided a generation, were not without their spiritual predecessors.

I am firmly on the other side of the fence when it comes to the politics of half-baked Jacobinism, undifferentiated resentment and selfish, adolescent demands for personal licence which animated the tantrums of ’68. But I have great sympathy for the students of today, who have been handed a very raw deal by the Government, and who will probably now be slapped with a hefty arbitrary fine simply for having held a private party in the midst of all this irrational state-mandated doom and gloom. If they do choose to take their understandable vexations and heightened passions from the bedrooms to the barricades, I can’t say I’ll blame them.

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And if one or two of them step up to unite such protests behind a coherent political denunciation of the madness of the last few months, and of the terrible consequences of this madness for young people, they might just have the beginnings of the much-needed movement to bring down this painfully inept Government and hold the entire British Establishment to account for their disastrous, disproportionate and irrational over-reaction to the virus.

And if that happens, I’ll be the first to join them.

© 2020 Byron Dean

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