Howard Jacobson: You'll never catch me going on a march

The moment people start throwing billiard balls at the police, their argument is invalidated
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The Independent Online

Here we go again. Groundhog Day. Students on the streets, John Lennon on the radio, Loach and Pilger on their high horses, shelling out bail for Mr WikiLeaks, charged this week with sexual misconduct.

Loach and Pilger know a conspiracy when they see one, hence Assange's hero-status in their eyes, for whoever gives away a secret must be telling us something we need to know. From which assumption it follows that the sexual misconduct charge has been trumped up by the Great Satan. Which indeed it might have been – it is certainly fortuitous. But then again it might not. If Loach and Pilger know for sure that he is innocent, I think we should be told how they know. We, too, don't like being kept out of a secret.

Student protests are problematic to me. I might as well come clean – no secrets in this column, reader – and say that I am temperamentally averse to demonstrations. Mass movements and all that. The minute I see more than 10 people hugger-mugger in like-mindedness, or marching down the street in military formation, my knees knock. The spectacle is too exhilarating. And for those doing the marching the experience clearly reaches back into the turbulent memory of the primal horde.

Wasn't that the lesson of the 20th century? That any more than five human beings believing the same thing and congregating to say so are bound to be on a course that will lead to trouble. We are safe only when we act individually. I'd like to say we are right only when we act individually, but I know I can't get away with that. Sometimes the horde expresses a genuine grievance. It brought down Communism, after all. But then again, it also instituted it.

I marched myself once when the village of Boscastle was embroiled in a fight with that high-handed agency for making life comfortable for the landed gentry, the National Trust. It was I who designed the banners. "Don't trust the Trust!" But when they slapped an injunction on us we crept away ignominiously.

Maybe there weren't enough of us. Had there been more we might have held out longer. That's the way of it with numbers. The heat of the pack fills you with a thrilling sentimental consciousness of right, the sense of brotherhood justifying any act of violence. But violence disfigures the cause for me. The moment demonstrators start throwing billiard balls at police, their argument is invalidated. If these are demonstrations in the name of easy access to the arts of civilisation ... but you know what I am going to say next.

So what else to do? I can't say I know. But it's a mistake to assume one must always do something. Steve Richards made a convincing case for the ineffectiveness of protest marches in this newspaper last week. "They have parts to play in the noise that shapes a democracy. But they are noises off." So we might fairly ask ourselves whether there aren't other ways of making the noise that shapes democracy. The climate of opinion can be changed by quiet dissent; individuals holding out against the cruellest forms of despotism, and we – whatever students in their pumped-up rage assert – aren't living in a despotic state.

As for the cause itself, that too is vexed. It is hard for someone of my generation, born into a far more decent and intelligent society – of which the benefits included reasonable student grants and local authorities who paid our fees – to view the increase in tuition fees with equanimity. How dare we, the undoubted beneficiaries of the old rules, suddenly propose new ones?

With a hefty portion of my second-year grant I bought myself a pair of ostrich-skin Chelsea boots. I make no apology for the extravagance. I was young. I was making heavy weather of university. I needed to cheer myself up and attract the sort of women for whom an ostrich-skin Chelsea boot was as a match to petrol. And I did work as an ice-cream seller in the vacations in order to refill the pot. But yes, we breathed easily under that system, our only debts being those we'd incurred ourselves.

I say I was the beneficiary of a more intelligent society, the intelligence manifesting itself in a high idea of what a university education was for. It is rare to find such a high idea now. If you can read media studies at university – anything that needs a "studies" to validate it should be viewed with suspicion – then universities have forgotten their function. But if you insist that the subject has viability for you, then pay for it. That a student reading media studies is of no earthly use to the society he wants to fund him, I need hardly argue to readers of this column. Why would we expend our taxes on the education of future producers, directors, commissioners, editors etc of The X Factor or I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!?

You will be surprised how many of the people pushing out pap every day on television acquired the negative wherewithal to do so at Oxford and Cambridge. We should bring the criterion of value to bear on this debate. By all means let people study what they want, but in hard times the help we give should be determined, not by the ideology of pluralism, and certainly not by gross utility, but by what can be agreed by our wisest heads to minister to civilisation.

I know it is not all the fault of media studies, that some of the ungainfully employed read English, but we can surely devise a fee system to cover that. If you want to study media studies it will cost you a hundred thousand smackers a year – you can earn that in a month if you become director-general of the BBC – whereas if you study English you will be given a generous grant provided you go on and teach, and when I say teach, I mean whole novels and whole poems which an educated society thinks merit the effort, and not brief extracts whose only virtue – and it ain't no virtue – is their "relevance". This grant will be claimed back by the government the minute you go anywhere near television. And at a rate of interest commensurate with the crap you have gone into television to produce.

The other measure it is time to consider is a university tax on bankers. They too, since they claim their mistakes were due to ignorance and folly not criminality, have much to gain from an educated workforce. T S Eliot was a banker, remember. A few more poets in the City would do no harm.