Student influence in politics from a historical and global perspective

Josh Stevens


They that when we’re younger we’re more left-wing, radical and have a greater desire for change but as time goes on, that desire fades and we’re left wanting to spend our time doing crosswords while watching Countdown and eating After Eights.



This trend was highlighted following the 2010 general election, when throughout their entire campaign the Liberal Democrats insisted they would not raise tuition fees only to do so when elected as the parasitic member of our current coalition government. This resulted in a protest of 50,000 students in London’s Trafalgar Square in November 2010 and another when the bill was passed a month later. These protests echoed across the country in places like Manchester, Edinburgh and Birmingham, creating the largest student movement in Britain in our lifetime. Although the movement was undermined by episodes of violence, it nonetheless proved that students have a voice and will mobilise. Even though tuition fees were raised anyway, the movement had such an impact in Westminster that Nick Clegg released an apology video…though admittedly the only good thing to come from this was the auto-tune remix on YouTube.



A place we can see student protests having a real impact is in Hong Kong. In 1997 Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred to the People’s Republic of China where the government promised they would retain the territory’s capitalism and partial democracy. However since then China has resisted granting Hong Kongers full democratic rights. Despite the lip service of strong global outcry, as always, there has been a vacuum of response. This was highlighted in August last year when China said people could only vote in the 2017 leader election for candidates put forward by the government. This is playing the democracy game, but by China’s rules, and it consequently sparked a series of protests last autumn. Main roads were blocked off and government buildings occupied. The majority of protests were organised, run and carried out by Hong Kong’s students. Authorities were under the spotlight for their appeal to repressive tactics and were even criticised by the Chinese government after excessive violence and use of tear gas. Although Hong Kong’s experience was not on the same scale as the pro-democracy protests of Tiananmen Square 16 years ago, these students are having a profound impact not only on their government but also on their constitution. Although we do not face the same struggles here in the UK, I would like to believe that if ever we did, we could demonstrate a similar level of resilience, unity and nerve as those on the frontline in Hong Kong.



It’s not only in recent years that students have made a significant impact in politics. The civil rights movement in America was helped greatly by the efforts of young black students in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. Tired of being oppressed by white people and the law, four African American freshers at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University staged a sit-in at the ‘whites-only’ section of a Woolworth’s café, deterring business for the company and forcing desegregation. These sit-ins quickly gathered momentum and were emulated across the United States, with similar civil disobedience taking place in Virginia and Tennessee. Protesters were heckled and even dragged out and beaten on the streets by policemen. With the unrest captured by the broadcast media, the news quickly spread around the world during a tense period in the Cold War. This allowed Lyndon Johnson to get Congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and end the lawful discrimination of African Americans, arguably the greatest achievement in American twentieth century politics. Leaders of the Civil Rights groups at the time were trying to gain equality through court cases and a lengthy legislative process, but it was the students who pursued immediate results and ignited the spark that revolutionised the attitudes of the nation.



These historical and contemporary issues allow us to recognise that as students, we have the potential to play a vital role in politics all over the world. When united and committed, we can achieve extraordinary things. In an era of widespread apathy and political disillusionment, I hope that everyone at some point during their university experience gets involved in some kind of political activity, even if it’s just voting in the general election in May. It is all too easy to forget the crucial difference that our participation can make.



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