5 years ago an old man stood on a stage in front of me and addressed a crowd. He declared that he had never felt so much apathy within the people of Great Britain in all his life.
Apathy. A lack of interest, enthusiasm and concern. During the past five years this buzzword has become synonymous with the British electorate.
5 years ago I participated in protests standing against the tripling of tuition fees for higher education. Many young people on those protests had been betrayed. Unbeknownst to many they had voted for a Tory led coalition Government by voting for the Liberal Democrat party. A party that had campaigned to freeze tuition fees for those who wished to further their education.
When the protests were over, for three hours, I and many others were forcibly held on Westminster Bridge. For three hours the police poured us out of their kettle. Drip by drip, slowly sapping away, for many of those young people, any belief in the political process of our democracy.
As I left the warm huddle of the kettle, a warm looking policeman made me look into a camera. As I walked away searching for my friend it felt as if a little of my soul had been snapped by that lens. Shivering, I found my friends and followed to the train station. On the train ride to New Cross I thought about whether I would have been where I was if I was two years younger, I thought about my brother, my sisters, and about what that old man had said…
In the silence I sat back in my seat and reminisced. My distinct youthful memories of politics are few, but unfortunately mainly negative. Finding out that the queen didn’t exactly mean very much. That Tony Blair was the Prime Minister. And, being told by a different old man that because some students had decided to sit cross-legged on the yard for longer than the permitted break time we would not be going on a school trip that year. Apparently we were going to war with Iraq. Me and my friends used to joke when we saw or heard planes overhead on the walk to school that it was Saddam bombing us – we never knew then how funny we were.
I thought about my first vote. I thought about the concerns of that, ‘bigoted’ woman; education, health, and looking after the vulnerable. Her prophetic mention of immigration…of Tuition fees.
I thought about Gordon Brown, the man I had voted for as the best of a bad bunch… “I agree with Nick…”? I recalled my friend texting me from Sheffield, where he was a student, Nick Cleggs’ constituency in fact. He told me he had been unable to vote as the queue was too long.
I recalled travelling that summer and being embarrassed trying to explain that in Britain we had a government that no-one had voted for.
Not out of a lack of respect; I was embarrassed to explain to my foreign friends the educational background of my countries leaders. Embarrassed, out of the knowledge that even with a great sense of empathy, it would be very hard for them to truly know what it is like for those with a lack of opportunity. Then, returning, I watched my chances to participate in democracy diminish.
And I thought about what that old man had said…
Over the next few months I watched as the die-hard struggled to rally resistance to the systemic cuts of the government as solidarity became a forgotten by word on social media, and those who had supported occupations now grumbled about library access. With the revolutions of what would become known as the Arab Spring revolving in my head I watched Aaron Porter, the leader of the National Union of Students, seek to save his own political skin.
“His dads a copper you know” a grizzled old socialist told me in an ‘ayay’ sorta fashion outside of Chandos pub in Trafalgar square after one of the earlier student demos. In reality; the kettle-ing, the lack of leadership, and the Christmas break had killed any real momentum.
I look at this generation; (and not just British) highly educated and highly literate, able to adapt and to think on its own. It is a generation that is seemingly resistant to the tags of others, of social class. Unaffected by didactic labelling. Acutely aware of environment. Interconnected and able to organize in an instant.
But perhaps most importantly, and inexplicably for those who call us cynical and apathetic. I believe this generation to be In-tune with, tapped into, and accepting of social dissimilarities. Understanding of the personal, social and cultural bonds that make up a sense of literal, of real multiculturalism. Devoid of any toxic political policies.
Back in 2010 The New Year passed and Dave proclaimed the death of “multiculturalism”
That summer I watched as the revolution in Lybia came to an end.
I was staying at a friend’s place on Florence rd when the Riots spilled over into Deptford. Me and a mate went to check out the fuss. As we walked through Deptford high street we came across smashed and boarded up shop windows, burnt out cars, and gangs of police and youths parading about like a grown up game of cops and robbers. Looking about I saw angrier versions of those kids in December and November. More reckless. With less to lose.
The following day my mates place was broken into when we were all out and all our laptops were nicked. The long arm of the law responded with harsher sentencing, while the establishment denounced any and all legitimate reasoning.
For me, it was simply a continuation of the same discontent, bubbled over and inextricably linked to the betrayal of the politicians and the didactic theft of future, of opportunity. The riots of the summer of 2011 were inherently political.
Yet, they had no political agenda! Declared state television. This outburst of passionate concern from a section of society that is amongst the most poverty stricken, the most bereft of opportunity, and the most politically disenfranchised inhabitants of one of the wealthiest cities in the world. This social movement, was not only rejected and belittled it was met with an utterly demoralizing lack of empathy.
How could these kids not understand the rules? Then again, how could these political leaders understand the social implications of a new pair of trainers? (Especially when all your mates just picked some up for free!) How could these statesmen and women of opportunity and leadership possibly understand what it means to be, in democratic terms; angry, sad, deaf, dumb, and mute.
At present it is no longer apathy amongst the non- voting youth. I would argue that over the past 5 years the youth have demonstrated interest, enthusiasm and concern of varying degrees. If not interconnected by name then certainly by nature.
A British identity. I used to believe, was about fairness and patriotic opportunity. Britain should be a beacon for this, as it has in the past… men and women died for the principals of great British society, for the belief in a fair and equal society.
Now, the man in charge of assessing social mobility, that is to say the man in charge of understanding the state of opportunities for our generation is telling us that Britain is on the verge of being permanently divided between rich and poor.
5 years on.
And we have another General Election.
Another opportunity for the ‘apathetic’ youth to engage with politics. There has been many attempts by writers and commentators to persuade the youth to vote. Ranging from guilt trips; ‘men and women died for your right to vote’. To the importance of choosing your enemy wisely.
Personally; put your left leg in, your right leg out…
Remember, that men and women died for your freedom to choose. You are still a part of this democracy, whether you like it or not, whoever you are. My generation is not full of good people doing nothing. It is riddled with a lack of opportunity.
If there was at least one thing the enigmatic Comedian Russell Brand served to highlight to those who are not a part of it, it is that this generation is far from apathetic.
I would argue, it is disillusioned. Impassionately. I witnessed it during the Student protests against the cuts. I witnessed it during the riots. I felt it walking through the streets of Lewisham in 2013. It was, undeniably, on display during the Scottish referendum.
I am an optimist. I believe in people.
Whatever happens from now. Whatever politicians and people may tell you about your rights and your choices and your views.
Remember. That what truly matters. Is you. And the things that matter – to you. Your beliefs and ideals are sacrosanct within democracy. And whether you have been trained for it or not, you can change the world…
When Tony Benn stood in front of me in the great hall of Goldsmiths College in November 2010 and addressed the crowd on the governments’ destructive plans for higher education and called for solidarity to defeat the ‘reforms’. What I saw was a living expression of the idea that genuine social change would not be delivered to us by the good grace of MPs or politicians but through the actions of ordinary people.
Whatever happens between now and the next General Election it is an ideal for my generation to hold on to. And to remember.