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I only joined the demonstration organised by the Edinburgh University Anti-Cuts Coalition as it reached Haymarket, on its way to the Liberal Democrats’ Scottish headquarters, and I am afraid that I missed most of the speeches because there was a very good Beanscene conveniently overlooking the protest. The Lib Dem HQ staff had been most likely told not to turn up to work today, for the protesters appeared to be chanting their slogans at an empty building. But even if they have only bagged a few office workers a holiday, then at least the protest has achieved something worthwhile. All of the policemen were over fifty, whilst all of the policewomen appeared to be under thirty, which I think indicates that the pigs were not expecting a Milbank-style riot. One of the policemen had an amused fatherly twinkle in his eye, but the rest seemed to be melting with boredom.

Edinburgh University is yearly inundated with wealthy students from good English homes, and this institution has always remained stiffly un-revolutionary, not least in the 1926 General Strike when its students volunteered themselves as scabs and manned the trams. But even by the University’s own standards, today’s protest was pretty bad. There were about three hundred students out of the twenty-eight thousand who attend Edinburgh University and the thousands more who attend colleges such as Napier, Stevenson, and the ECA. The coalition’s Facebook group has about two hundred and twenty members. In London – where they do not even have a university worth speaking of – the crowd looked big and ugly, and the police did their amusing “kettling” routine in which the protesters end up campaigning to leave the protest. But in Scotland’s capital it was all just rather embarrassing. I had cause to remember my old joke about the Right-to-Work campaign hiring agency workers from Blue Arrow in order to beef up the numbers on its marches.

And so to Beanscene, which has made its reputation from being not quite Starbucks and yet being identical to it at the same time, rather like Nick Clegg and the Tories, which seems to be the big point of the day: “Nick Clegg/ We Know You/ You’re a Fucking Tory Too!” From the coffee shop, I spot a placard which excruciatingly reads “Nick you’re a Bad Clegg.” The other side of the placard rather oddly suggests that “This Would Never Happen At Hogwarts,” although Hogwarts is a private boarding school rather than a publicly funded university, so I fail to discern the relevance of this line. Many of the students have plasters stuck to their faces, possibly to symbolise “the cuts,” although I doubt that they can be likening swingeing financial cutbacks to a shaving accident.

Fortified with coffee, we return to the protest. There is a backpackers’ hostel directly above the Lib Dem HQ and the residents are peeping out with mild panic, presumably trying to remember what on earth they did to university funding to justify this protest. But the protest is all rather jolly and I flatter myself to think that if I was a Liberal Democrat, then I would have the cojones to bring out cups of tea to the protesters. The heads of the protest deliver some speeches which they topically refer to as “lectures,” but, as with most Edinburgh University lecturers, the microphone does not seem to function and everybody listens attentively and politely to passages of near silence. But we get the message.

I came to this protest with a good deal of sympathy, but I leave it with a weary sense of how far there is to go before such an aimless campaign can acquire real popularity, or at least enough persuasive force to carry students off campus and all the way to Haymarket. The UK is today ringing to the slogan, “No Ifs, No Buts, No Education Cuts,” but this unconditional demand is probably achievable only in the world of Hogwarts and, rather damningly for these students, their protest would benefit from a bit more intellectual input.

Of course, the government has no right to slice from the education budget whilst it is still paying over £20 billions to volunteer British troops as unpaid mercenaries in Afghanistan’s civil war, and whilst it is forking out millions to maintain a ludicrously high prison population, but it is rather too much to ask working people to fund so many universities when these institutions are palpably failing to produce a workforce skilled enough to lead the economy out of recession. In other words, university funding can only be justified as part of a wider economic plan, and perhaps these students should stop regarding the issue in terms of their personal “rights,” but rather as part of our collective future.

But enough of these quibbles and more power to their elbow!

[At the time of writing, about a hundred students are still occupying Appleton Tower. You can follow the action via Twitter here and here. See Tychy passim for more on the Cuts. Ed.]

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