Climate Protests: Show me what democracy looks like

I imagine that you are rarely met with a party atmosphere when stepping out of Westminster tube station on a February afternoon. But on the 15th February 2019 at 1 o’clock, the sun was shining, people were singing and smiling, and that distinctive smell of cannabis smoke was in the air. It felt more like Reading Festival than the epicentre of the British political system.

This being said, most of the 2000 students weren’t there for a party. This wasn’t a day off school or an early half term get-together. The majority of people were there to get their voices heard by politicians — perhaps for the first time in their lives.

As I walked up towards Westminster Bridge, a protestor excitedly filled me in on the day’s events. “And then this guy climbed up a bus,” he told me breathlessly. I couldn’t tell if the act was inspired by genuine frustration or perhaps it was the result of soaking up a bit too much of the protest atmosphere, and maybe a bit too much alcohol as well.

Aside from a small cohort of people who couldn’t get enough of climbing things, most of the protestors had remained very much on the ground level. Two roadblocks had been organised. One over Westminster Bridge and the other on Parliament Street. The students chanted for stuck drivers to turn their engines off.

On the other side of Parliament Square, the atmosphere was calmer. Here, students were taking a break from the excitement of the main protest. It was also here that a group of students started chanting “Show me what democracy looks like!”

It’s a cliché, but I found it somewhat more powerful when chanted by students, who are deemed by politicians too young to sufficiently grasp democracy to be able to vote. What I saw at that protest was a very clear demonstration that young people are interested in politics and have a deep desire to get involved.

In discussions about extending the franchise, the act of voting is often talked up as being some sort of life-defining decision that requires deep levels of cognitive ability to properly carry out and therefore, people younger than 18 can’t be trusted to do it. But such a view relies on a false extension of the act of deciding who you want to represent you to the act of making policy decisions.

I suspect that the majority of adults wouldn’t reach the standard of voting behaviour that seems to be expected of under 18-year-olds. Speaking to adults, their reasons for why they voted how they did are usually fairly flimsy — family traditions and individual moments from campaigns tend to be most frequently cited.

The founding idea of representative democracy is that non-experts vote in experts to make more technical decisions on their behalf. Therefore, young people do not have to be policy analysts to contribute to democracy, rather they simply need to know the difference between what they think is right and wrong.

People climbing shelters and buses is unhelpful to the argument that sufficient maturity has been reached by 16 however, the actions of a few shouldn’t deny a voice to the masses of young people who want their views to be properly considered by politicians.

* Lennard Metson is studying A-levels in London. Interested in people, politics and society.

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3 Comments

  • Steve Trevethan. 22nd Feb '19 - 11:29am

    Thank you for an excellent and important article!

  • nigel hunter 22nd Feb '19 - 5:38pm

    It would be stupid for our ‘betters ‘to ignore the children’s and students concerns over climate change. They become voters. Those who harness their concerns can be tomorrows political winners.

  • Peter Hirst 25th Feb '19 - 5:19pm

    Non-violent direct action seems to me to be a credible method of demonstrating the frustration and even anger young people have a right to feel over Brexit, climate change and a host of other issues.

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