I have seen wars and bombs and crashes (both economic and aircraft) but only one revolution. It was 2004 in Ukraine, and along Khreschatyk, the boulevard that runs a mile through central Kiev, a tent city had sprouted in the early winter snow, the heart of a protest movement railing against political injustice.
When I went to talk to the protesters there I was most forcefully struck by one thought: "These are practically children ..."
And so they were, teenagers and students, shivering in the dark, huddling round braziers, sharing food, donning warm clothes and boots donated by far older well-wishers, many concerned mothers among them. Nonetheless, it looked fantastically uncomfortable.
But that was the whole point. While others were prepared to rub along with the unfolding drama, as observers, watching on from warm living rooms, the young revolutionaries were determined to stick it out in person.
Somehow, though its eclectic mix of protest and street festival occasionally saw it more resemble the Woodstock of 1969 than the Paris of 1789, the tent city was vitally important. It stayed despite security force threats to bulldoze it, and it stayed to see through the supreme court decision cancelling the election its residents insisted was rigged.
And while the stakes were high, the young protesters on Khreschatyk were almost uniformly upbeat. Looking back through my photos, cheery faces – smiling, optimistic – stare back at me.
The moment when their futures appeared to have been stolen was to them a moment of enormous, perhaps unique opportunity. The manifest failings of their ruling class were too important to ignore, too obvious, too startling. They did not know precisely how that change would unfold, but they knew it would come, and that they had a part to play. And they were right.
UK education secretary Gavin Williamson is no one's idea of a charismatic revolutionary figurehead. But somehow, this week, he's managed to purify and refine a political cock-up and create a crystalline moment of outrage, a moment which has once again brought young people on to the streets – not to parade their grades but to signal their unanimous contempt. Behind them, countless thousands of parents bubbled with protective rage at their offspring's whitewater ride at the hands of the government: a lost six months of education, a chance to prove themselves snatched away, almost half downgraded, university places lost then, finally, spat out of the regrading rapids to be met with accusations of grade inflation.
What started as a week riddled with injustice, that struck at the heart of the Conservative ambition to "level up" the country, has ended striking at the Conservative reputation for competence. And the consequences of a relationship to power poisoned so early in life could be profound. We should not expect young people to take it lying down.
This snatching away of hope is, history suggests, the most unbearable, the greatest provocation. It was a phenomenon that historian Alexis de Tocqueville first recognised in the mid-19th century in his book L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution – the greatest firebrands in revolutionary France emerged not from the poorest region, but from areas where prosperity was growing; where some liberties had been granted. Having tasted the good life they wanted more. Now.
This theory of a "revolution of rising expectations" has also been used to explain the Russia in 1917. Those who can see a better life, but who find it lies just beyond their fingertips, are the most fervent revolutionaries.
Today, young people fit exactly that description: they have seen generations before them profit from an extraordinary period of economic expansion and prosperity, only to find that they will not be so lucky: after the crash a decade ago they suffered greater unemployment; their wages fell most. Today, Covid has exacerbated that: a third of 18-24-year-old employees (excluding students) have lost jobs or been furloughed, compared to one-in-six prime-age adults, according to the Resolution Foundation.
Those figures contribute to the shattering of a long-standing academic compact: higher education once equalled a middle-class job with a middle-class salary. Not any more. Covid, on the back of the crash, is forecast to leave graduates already burdened by student debt stuck in low-level roles, with stagnating pay, for longer – if they can get jobs at all.
Sometimes the fallout of this tantalising torture of hope is obvious. The great financial crash manifested itself in Occupy Wall Street and, in the UK, Corbynism, where young people pointed to the obvious disparity between rising corporate profits and falling wages. Of course, for many, the shambles of Corbynism was itself merely another depressing form of thwarted hope.
But sometimes the impact of youthful discontent, swirling with rival ideas and competing principles, is hard to predict. Take the hippy movement that tied in so strongly with initial anti-Vietnam war protests on American campuses. Perhaps the whiff of marijuana smoke and the sight of long-haired students initially made them easy to dismiss. But by the early 1970s hundreds of thousands, from all sections of society, were marching on the streets of Washington.
That is why the rolling campaigns led by the young against apparently entrenched power in recent years are also significant – ultimately many others see the point, get the argument. At the very least, the issue itself is discussed: March for our Lives, led by schoolchildren in America, raised the taboo issue of gun control. Who now can ignore Extinction Rebellion, or Black Lives Matter?
For so long, of course, little of this has counted where it matters – at the ballot box. While young people have always wielded tremendous cultural power – fetishised by advertisers, cultivated by television and movie producers as the audiences of tomorrow, and themselves transformers of every medium through relentless, aweless innovation – their political power has been muted. Simply put: they don't vote. Turnout among 18-24 year olds at last year's general election was an estimated 47 per cent. Among those 65 and older, it was 74 per cent.
Now, however, something is changing. The young do have leverage. For a start, young people, as far as we know, are very much less at risk from Covid-19 than older people. Yet the old require the young to respect lockdowns and distancing to prevent the virus taking off. In other words, they require social solidarity.
Should we be surprised if young people demand the same of the old, over issues that they consider critical: wages, jobs, wealth, opportunities, racism, misogyny. Don't think those issues are important? You might if many thousands marched near you to focus your mind, risking the spread Covid while they were at it. Mass rallies led by the young have a particular potency in the age of this pandemic.
The second arrow in their quiver is technology. You only have to look at the US stock market to see where financial power today lies. Yet titans like Google, Apple and Netflix are all subject to the liberal concerns of their young, college-educated employees. In 2018, Google chose not to renew a contract with the Pentagon that deployed AI potentially to target drone strikes, after an employee rebellion. From finance to farming, start-up digital entrepreneurs are re-shaping the world – and they tend to be young.
That is not to say that the young will immediately take to the streets, wilfully boosting the R value in order to bump off their elders. Not at all. Recent research by the National Citizen Service shows that young people remain upbeat.
Holly Gallacher, 18, from Peter Simmons college in Winchester, has seen friends' lives wrecked by the exam grade fiasco in Britain. "It's been incredibly difficult," she told me, just one of a series of issues, from BLM to the environment, where she and her peers feel let down. But they are not out for revenge. "There are some negative feelings," she says. "But our generation is positive. Our outlook is: 'Instead of just getting angry we'd rather make the change.'"
How they do so remains to be seen. But given that polling shows three-quarters feel that their opinions are disregarded despite their futures being impacted the most by political decisions during Covid, no one should be surprised if they do rise up to shake the complacency of their elders and betters. - Daily Telegraph