Why I handed the Union a giant cheque for ‘Sod All’

JESSICA O’DRISCOLL-BREEN explains her motivations for taking part in CDE’s notoriously angry protests.

activism cambridge students cde conservatives david willetts Europe fuck off jess odb labour protest student fees tories Union

Most of you will know about our stunt at the Union last week.

I know there is widespread criticism (especially in The Tab‘s comment section) of me, Conrad and CDE for our protest and the manner in which we did it, so I want to explain our reasoning here, and possibly convince some of you to agree with us.

David Willetts, the Minister for Universities, is supposed to be students’ representative in the government. Rather than doing his best for students, he has tripled fees up to £9,000, he is trying to cut funds from all ‘non-competitive’ courses (i.e. all humanities courses), and he has privatisated the Student Loans Book, which means that repayment rates and terms can be changed by the private companies who have bought the debt. They don’t give a crap about students; they only want profit, so we should be prepared for a hit.

Hidden payload

People say that we were wrong for trying to take someone’s freedom of speech away from him.

But firstly, it was a silent protest. We didn’t shout him down. We didn’t stop anyone from hearing him speak. We held up the banner and were swiftly escorted out by the Union’s very efficient security. It was all very tame and civilised.

Secondly, we are talking about a man who has the opportunity to speak in Parliament every day. The idea that two students could infringe upon his freedom of speech is laughable.

I’m not sorry for holding out a little banner, I’m not going to pay a fine, and I would do the same all over again if I had the chance.

That said, I don’t think I have some special say in who the Union should invite to speak. I have no intention to go and swear at anyone I don’t feel like listening to; the obvious solution is to just not go to those talks.

However, in the case of Willetts, it was like a kick in the teeth to every student to have him speak in the Union. He is supposed to have students’ best interests at heart, but has consistently acted in ways that make life unnecessarily hard for us.

The UK has the highest fees in Europe

Of course it’s good for the Union to get controversial speakers: if everyone agreed with what was being said there all of the time, it would just be like a bloody TED conference with everyone patting each others’ backs and nodding along. It’s good to push boundaries, and have disagreements and debate.

But Willetts doesn’t push the boundaries, and he isn’t ‘controversial’ in the appropriate sense. He is the status quo. He has already had a big say in students’ lives, and he is not going to listen to any criticism by a few students in the Union.

The argument that it’s worthwhile inviting him so we can tell him what we think and engage in debate with him is ridiculous. Do we really think he has no idea that he is making life difficult for students, and that after a little chat with 40 students in the chamber he will go back to Westminster thinking “OMG! I gotta change a few things. Lads, listen up, I just realised something!”?

We’re not the only ones who have protested against Willetts speaking at a University. This academic year, a very similar (but wittier) banner was unfurled at the Oxford Union, and Willetts actually cancelled an appearance at Sussex because of a planned protest. The focus should not be on me and CDE vs. the Union, it should be all students, united, fighting for our education. The UK has the highest fees in Europe. Free education is a pretty basic thing to ask for in a prosperous, developed country.

I don’t hate the Union. I understand that they have rules that I signed up to when I became a member. I knew I was breaking the rules by protesting. And they gave a pretty lenient punishment by fining me 20 quid. To pay that, however, would be to take back what I did. It would be an apology. It would be a concession to Willetts, and I am not prepared to do that.

CDE protesting George Osborne’s visit to Cambridge recently

Finally, a note on CDE’s style, which I know some people don’t understand. People say we seem too angry, we are too alienating, we don’t actually engage in debate and all we do is tell politicians to ‘fuck off’. This, however, is in the nature of radical protest.

There are already many liberal critics who engage in debate with politicians, who carefully articulate a gentle and almost apologetic version of their views in an effort to get the masses on-side and who dutifully follow the rules, say their bit and shut up.

This form of criticism tends to suit the status quo. It’s easy for those in power to listen briefly to that gentle critique, say they’ll think about it, and continue picking their noses or doing whatever they were doing. Of course, calm, engaged, careful criticism can be valuable, but there also needs to be a space for radical protest. These radical ideas then become normalised and integrated into liberal thought, and that’s how mass changes of mindset tend to happen.

At one point, any feminist ideas were considered to be radical. Feminists were all angry radicals, they didn’t engage in debate and they didn’t try to gather mass support by being apologetic and calm. If they had done that, they would have had to dumb down their views and thus never pose any real threat to patriarchy.

So yes, there are more students from disadvantaged backgrounds at University now than in 2010 (which seems to be the main defence of the state of education at the moment), and that is fantastic. But it could be better. There are still problems with high fees, the rates we will have to pay back on our loans, and further cuts to humanities courses.

CDE will continue to be angry about these things until they are changed, and we will continue telling those responsible for it to ‘fuck off’. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is important. There is a difference between protests which appear to attack while just supporting the status quo, and direct, unapologetic protest.

Our style is the latter. If you think it sounds good, feel free to join in.