It was ‘that picture’ that did for him. The image of Charlie Gilmour using the Cenotaph’s Union Jack as a swing during the student protests last December was published again and again on every front page, news website and bulletin in the country. Now, one does not have to be a genius to realise that this is not something that Gilmour could really recover from and so it has come to pass that, seven months later, he has been sentenced to sixteen months in prison, of which he will serve at least eight. The charge was ‘violent disorder’ and pertains to a few other ill advised but perhaps not terribly serious incidents. However, there can be no doubt that the harshness of his sentence and the enthusiasm with which he has been prosecuted was all due to that picture.
Indeed, when passing sentence, the judge at Kingston Crown Court accused him of showing gross disrespect to the monument saying: “You have shown disrespect to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, to those who fell defending this country.” All of this he said while admitting that Gilmour’s actions at the Cenotaph had absolutely nothing to do with the case before him. Nevertheless, the judge felt the need to pronounce upon it, as have many others since the photograph surfaced, invariably describing it as a disgraceful act of disrespect.
But all this sound and fury covers something important. The protests were, undeniably, about the future. Not just the personal future of today’s schoolchildren (and those who are yet to be born) who will either be saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of personal debt or will judge that to be beyond their means but also the radical restructuring of education via cuts to arts funding. They were protests against reforms which deny that the wider British community can benefit from graduates in all fields and further shackle higher education to pure economic growth – becoming, more than it ever has been, just about the money.
However, for most, it was the image of one very foolish boy suspended from a flag that symbolised the protests and that was deemed more worthy of condemnation than ill-thought-out and highly damaging reforms which nobody voted for. In Britain today, we invest little in our future and much in our past, caring more about where we have been than where we are going. While ministers who benefited from a society that invested in the future take an axe to the living, breathing future, it is a minor act of vandalism against a stone monument that has the nation up in arms. These are the things we choose to care about.