Rebellion is not what it used to be

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Full marks to young Sarah Briggs, the Mansfield schoolgirl who refused to back down over her comments in a local newspaper. Sarah told the paper that she and her fellow students had not had the quality of teaching to which they felt entitled, because of, amongst other things, an overuse of temporary teachers.

No-one from the school contested that point, though they suggested that it might not be the whole story. But they demonstrated what was wrong with the ethos of the school by demanding that the girl apologise for having told the truth as she saw it. The decision by the Briggs family to back Sarah's refusal to say sorry led to her suspension until this week, when the school's governors eventually backed down.

Like most people who show great courage, Sarah Briggs seems slightly puzzled by people's regard for her. After all, from her point of view all she did was answer some straight questions honestly. She was promised something by grown-ups - decent teaching that would help her to pass exams - and she didn't get it. However, others did apologise, under pressure. The crime here is that, as ever, adults (except, of course, Sarah's parents) chose not to listen to children; instead the grown-ups insisted that they either kept silent or repeated what they had been told to say. It's a rotten lesson - do as you're told , and you'll get by.

All that said, the episode leaves me feeling a little uneasy. Is this what generations of adolescent protest has come to - this sensible, moderate, pragmatic, basically unthreatening wagging of the finger at a failure to deliver our promises? The nearest we get to youthful undermining of the social order is the activity of a few anoraks on the internet. Worse still, young people's protest is all too often understood and supported by parents. Now, that's seriously weird.

The role of those unsullied by responsibility and experience should be to compel the rest of us to stare at the ugly gap between what we say we want to achieve and what we actually do. Thank you, for example, Swampy, Animal and Co for reminding us that we shouldn't whine about congestion and pollution whilst searching for the keys to our family's second car.

But part of the value of youthful rebellion is that parents shouldn't even be able to understand it, never mind support it. A society in which new ways of seeing, being and speaking are no longer being invented is probably ready for the undertaker.

Paradoxically, some of the more challenging views in our country come from people who could not by any stretch of the imagination be called youthful. How can it be that the most eloquent voice in the debate over legalisation of drugs is that of Mike Goodman, the forty-plus boss of the charity Release?

Am I alone in thinking it strange that the most potent threat to the two-car family is the middle-aged, Jaguar-driving, Deputy Prime Minister? Worse still, for those interested in equality, how does it happen that the loudest voices of protest belong to such as Lord Hattersley, who could be called young, I suppose, but only relative to the octogenarian La Pasionara of the Labour movement, Baroness Castle. These people should no longer have to carry the burden of rebellion. I think that young people are showing deplorable lack of manners and consideration in not picking up the torch.

You may say that I have a hidden motive here, given that I devoted several years of my own life to the 1970s equivalent of tunnelling - strikes, picketing and occupations - and that I am merely trying to gloss over the fact that a succeeding generation has found these tactics wanting.

Possibly; but my complaint is less about tactics than about ambition. It is utterly pathetic that my generation should find Oasis unthreatening and The Spice Girls cute. But neither of these groups could be regarded as a menace to society ; far from it - their protest is of the most conservative kind. They don't want to tear down the social order; they just want to get higher in the rankings. This is so disappointing; I've yet to discover a teenage enthusiasm against which I can sternly warn my children, without facing that pitying gaze which tells you that the last thing they'd get involved with is any of your fad student passions. Sex, drugs, rock & roll? Yeah, right, why don't you get a life, Dad?

Of course, youthful rebellion has another purpose. It is to point clearly to where the previous generation has failed in its own ideals. The sixties teenagers were peaceniks, partly because their parents had promised in 1945 never to go to war again, and then could not resist the temptation of conflict. They embraced sexual liberation because their parents created a rigid and repressive sexual code and then repeatedly transgressed it.

In our cases, there is some justification for the mild attack by young people on the environmental record of a 40-plus generation brought up with a commitment to a better cleaner ecological system.

But perhaps the pragmatic down-to-earth revolt of people like Sarah Briggs points to another issue. Their rebellion, if it exists, is against the failure of the institutions of public power and public service - schools and colleges, the monarchy, local government and Parliament itself. As we never tire of hearing, their heroes are individualistic, outsized personalities with the chutzpah to take on public officials in pursuit of their own personal fulfilment - Ian Wright, Richard Branson, Liam Gallagher, Anita Roddick. Enthusiasm for the paranormal, and the paranoia industry led by The X-Files are tokens of a growing belief that all government is a conspiracy against the people. Even their much-reported dislike of racial bias is less about the way that bigotry interferes with the possibility of achieving equality, and more about its effect on the right to compete.

This is worrying. At the very moment that the Blair project is trumpeting a return to community, young people's real interest look to be racing off in the opposite direction. They think hippie communes are soppy and they don't want to be forced to march to the beat of some monolitihic enterprise with rules, regulations and hierarchies, even if its for the public good. This all puts a premium on restoring confidence in the ability of collective institutions, whether they're hospitals, schools, local councils or even the local jobcentre to do what they promise to do.

Otherwise we can foresee the key to modern rebellion becoming individualism. And what is the paradigm of individualism in our time? Will we see a young people's protest over their right to run their own ecologically sound cars whenever they want to? You can see the placards now: "What Young People Really Really Want - The Right To Drive".