Students demonstrate in Parliament Square, London, on 9 December 2010, against planned tuition fee increases. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
A friend in France, watching the London student demos on an English website, emails ". . . unlike France, there's no tribal, institutionalised memory of struggle where you are marching. Does that make this moment in Britain more fiery and unpredictable? I thought, watching the website, that maybe it might." There's no memory of revolution in modern Britain, but there is a historical memory of what the students did in 1968, a memory kept alive by images, songs and books and there is the memory of the anti-poll tax rebellion that did for Thatcher.
Mixing old wines with new (Château Thatcher 1979, with the 1997 Nouveau Blair or the plastic-bottled Cameron-Clegg 2010) is always a mistake. Wisdoms old and young, however, mix admirably well. That is what we experienced on 8 December 2010. There is a new mood in the air, an anger that melts the snow. All hail the new, young student Decembrists who challenged a complacent government and simultaneously fired a few shots across the bows of an opposition and its toadies in the media, all still recovering from a paralytic hangover, a consequence of imbibing too much Nouveau Blair.
The Decembrists occupied, they sang, they blogged, Facebooked, tweeted and marched to show their contempt for the politicians who lied. The Prince of Wales and his consort saw all this from closeup, a far cry from the sycophancy to which they have become accustomed. It was this movement that gave a majority of Clegg's and Cable's Lib-Dem parliamentarians the courage to vote against, abstain or absent themselves from the Commons on this fateful day. The fires lit in Parliament Square to keep the kettled Decembrists warm were also symbolic, turning the heat on a rotting coalition that might not last the full term so joyfully imagined. The hard-faced Cameron can no longer boast to his European counterparts that this country is a politico-economic Guantánamo where everything goes. No longer.
The tuition fees were approved, but it is the Decembrists who have established themselves morally and politically on the higher ground. What happens next? The political establishment will be hoping that Christmas cheer and getting further into debt via easy bank overdrafts permanently on offer might sap the energy of the students. My experience of speaking at a few occupations and engaging in street talk tells me otherwise. I sense a steely resolve on the part of many school and university students who have suddenly realised that they're part of a much bigger picture. In fighting for themselves they are fighting for the interests of society as a whole, a society that has had enough of privatisations and deregulation with the public services chained to PFIs, a rail system where the fares are permanently reaching for the sky, a society where profit is king, regardless of what it costs the country.
And so the struggle must continue and the public-sector workers being dumped like canned food past its sell-by date will, I hope, take heart from the actions of the young Decembrists. As the German poet Bertolt Brecht wrote in one of his last poems:
So does that mean we've got to
And say "That's how it is and
always must be"
And spurn the brimming glass for
what's been emptied
Because we've heard it's better to
So does that mean we've got to sit
Since uninvited guests are not
And wait while those on top go on
What pains and joys we are to be
Better, we think, would be to rise
And never go without the
And, warding off those who bring
pain and hunger
Fix up the world to live in at our