An account of the demonstration against tuition fee increases

I was at the tuition fees protest as one of the Lib Dems who had agreed via Facebook to march together at the demonstration. Amongst the (inevitably violence dominated) coverage of the protests, I decided that I would like to give my impression of what occurred for the benefit of those who did not attend.

For me the protest began at 9.30am by boarding a Student Union organised coach to London from the University of Surrey. There were about 100 of us in total from Surrey and the general feeling on the coaches was upbeat as we gave our names and phone numbers to the Union organisers and in return received a leaflet advising us how to behave and what to do if arrested. To pass the time on the journey I engaged in a lively debate with the tory sitting next to me about the merits of AV vs FPTP.

When we arrived at the demo forming up point at 11.50ish I’d missed the initial gathering of my fellow Lib Dems at Trafalgar Square so as soon as I got off the bus, and had said hello to my local (LD) councillor who had come up separately, I made my way past the various university contingents, homemade placard clutched in my hand, as I tried to find the other Lib Dems.

Having made my way from the rear of the protest to the front and then on to Trafalgar Square, I was certain of two things. One, with my Lib Dem t-shirt, rosette and placard I felt highly conspicuous and vulnerable. Two, the Lib Dem group was nowhere to be seen and the SWP seemed to have newspaper salesmen everywhere.

Doubling back towards the rear of the protest, and frantically texting people who I knew would be there, I suddenly found myself hailed by the large friendly, unstoppable force of liberalism that is Martin Shapland, Chair of Liberal Youth. After scrambling over a railing and around some NUS stewards, I joined Martin and the rest of the Lib Dem contingent. Sadly we were relatively few (I counted thirteen of us at the start of the march) but there were enough placards and signs for three apiece whilst we bemoaned the fact that most Lib Dems who’d said they were coming seemed to have decided to march with their universities or to stay home.

As we waited for the protest to start a few other stragglers joined us, we chatted amongst ourselves and I took the time to admire the sea of purple placards that surrounded us. Periodically someone would mumble something over a megaphone and cheers would sweep through the crowd with us Liberal Democrats joining in with more individual cries such as “Huzzah!” and “Loud noise!”

At 12.30 the demonstration began and we began to move forwards in stops and starts. No sooner had we began, we stopped again while Martin was interviewed on camera and put up an admirable, on-message summation of our position on fees.

As we made our way past Parliament things seemed remarkably good natured with everyone seeming very cheerful and enthusiastic. Occasionally someone would mention something to us about Clegg or “betrayal” and we would respond along the lines that not everyone agreed with the leadership and the vast majority of us remained opposed to fee increases and fees in general. There was quite a lot of joking amongst us about the likelihood of being lynched by socialists and plenty of lively debate about one issue or another whilst one or two more people joined us, including a good friend of mine from Lincoln. Chants would regularly start up and die away after a few repetitions with my personal favourite chants being “No Cuts, More Sluts” and “Nick Clegg shame on you, shame on you for turning blue”.

Once we got past Parliament there was no more stopping and starting and we moved along at a decent place though we now had more exchanges with SWP and Labour supporters. At times it seemed like we would get separated from each other but we managed to stay together as a group via the “ducking and weaving through the crowds” method.

However, when we got to Millbank Tower we became aware that trouble had started. A small part of the crowd was breaking off into the courtyard whilst NUS stewards tried to motion people to go straight on. It was obvious that something was being burned in the courtyard where a lot of SWP and anarchist banners were present. There was no police presence that I could see and as we went past Millbank we could see that one of the windows had been smashed. Most people around us seemed appalled with several saying how stupid and damaging to our cause it was.

A few yards down the road the protest ended with a few speeches and videos on a large projector screen that I was too far away from to see or hear properly. After standing around sheepishly for a while we decided, in true Liberal tradition, to go to the pub.

As we headed back past Millbank it became obvious that the situation was getting worse. A police van was parked in the middle of the road while more windows had been smashed and someone was setting of fireworks. Unsure of what was being burned but certain that we would be unpopular with the protesters inside the courtyard, we decided to go past as quickly as we could – stopping only to gawp at the spectacle of a nearly naked man lying on a sledge being towed along by other similarly near naked men, one of whom was wearing what appeared to be an animal skin. A Druid friend of mine who was standing nearby reliably informed us that they were Satanists.

At this point we were all fairly cheerful and continued joking and laughing as we made our way towards a pub near Cowley Street though the conversation frequently turned to Millbank and the moronic nature of what was happening there.

When we reached the pub we decided that it might be a good idea to drop off our placards at Cowley Street so as to avoid scaring the landlord and to avoid drawing the attention of the bands of socialists who were amongst those dispersing from the end of the demonstration.

However, when we got to Cowley Street we discovered that the socialists had beaten us to it. A large crowd was gathered in front of the building with policemen blocking the entrance.

Sensibly, in my opinion, we paused out of sight to take off our Lib Dem t-shirts and to lower our placards to our sides. We then dashed across the street, led once again by the redoubtable Martin Shapland, to the back entrance of Cowley Street. Unfortunately, when we got there we discovered than the entire road had been blocked by police vans with policemen there to prevent anyone going through which, it turned out, included us. The production of our membership cards was to no avail and we were forced to beat a retreat. We dumped most of the placards next to a pile of rubbish bags on the street corner and made our way to the pub, discussing the multiple failings of Nick Clegg en route.

The pub, for me, was where the protest ended, but whilst there we read in dismay as reports came in on twitter and on news websites that protesters at Millbank had stormed the building, set fire to it, climbed on to the roof, and that people had been injured by shattered glass. As one person remarked “this is all the coverage will be about now, the violence will overshadow everything.” I believe a few expletives were then added but I will not repeat them here.

For me, the day ended in a cafe bar in Waterloo station with three friends, one old and two new, but for some unfortunates it ended by being treated for injuries caused by the items thrown from the Millbank Tower roof and, at time of writing (11pm) there are still about a dozen protesters in the Millbank Tower.

So, to summarise. This was a peaceful protest, with tens of thousands of students from all over the country turning up to voice their opposition to tuition fee increases. Most of us made it there safely (barring the Lincoln coach that collided with an unmarked police car on the way down) and most of us made it home safely. But a small minority of anarchists, the majority of them non-students, started trouble at the Millbank centre that drew in others (about a thousand out of fifty thousand protestors overall), some of whom I would characterise as naive idiots who thought it would be fun to burn placards and smash windows.

The day ended in violence that has marred the entire demonstration and seriously damaged our message. Already the tory press has ground into gear, commentators berating ungrateful, spoilt students and violent, immature anarchists. Those who started the violence are no friends of students. Driven by rabid anti-tory hatred they destroyed property (some of it belonging to completely politically neutral companies) and caused the injury of dozens of innocent bystanders. This will hang over the anti-fees campaign for weeks if not months and will make our work so much harder.

But that is not the whole story. The trouble at Millbank continued for hours before the riot police were sent in and if they had properly protected the building in the first place (like they did at Cowley Street) the violence would never have happened. Similarly, I feel that students like myself are partially responsible for not telling the troublemakers to f*** off before it was too late.

That said, there is much to celebrate but we will have to fight over the next few days to ensure the true message of the demonstration is not lost and we will all need to be vigilant at future protests to ensure that the violent minority does not have the chance to ruin things again.

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41 Comments

  • George, I too was on the march, quite near the front it seems. I was walking past Millbank just as the trouble was starting. I saw a few eggs going against the windows and heard a window paine crack before I walked on past it all.

    The problem was that Millbank is not down a side street or a detour really. It is right there, next to the road we were marching on. For I while, when I saw most of the marchers walking into the square around the offices I thought that was where the march was going. It was only when I saw a march organiser directing people to go straight on that I realised the front end of the marchers had got on ahead by quite some way and there was a large gap between them and those floodng into Millbank. There were no police to direct marchers straight on and most of the marchers I don’t think really heard or saw the one or two march organisers.

    Whether the students flooded into Millbank out of curiosity or whether they followed ringleaders I don’t know, but I was saddened when I heard of all the violence later on. I didn’t think it would go that far.

    The problem is that the argument will now be hijacked by those wishing to turn their action into a general protest against the cuts. Most of these activists have many more reasons to vent their anger than the issue of student fees, so I fear that whatever happens and whoever comes out against the fee hike this will not be enough to placate them.

    While I do salute those Lib Dems who came on the march in what must have been quite an intimidating atmosphere, the Lib Dem MPs for me have missed the boat. They voted not only to vote against a fees increase but also to oppose the argument. This they have singularly failed to do. To just sit back and claim they are waiting to see the details of the bill is not enough. They need to voice their opposition now.

  • George W. Potter 11th Nov '10 - 10:41pm

    @Guido Fawkes

    It wasn’t the student protesters but the bands of SWPers roaming the streets after the protest ended that worried us – most of whom weren’t even students.

    @Mike

    I agree with you. That fits in with the sense I had. I nearly went into Millbank myself as for a bit it looked like that was where we were meant to go. It was only when I saw an NUS steward beckoning us onwards that I realised where we were meant go.

    And you’re spot on about our MPs.

  • Personally I think this criticism of the ‘violence’ is all a bit silly.

    What ‘violence’ was their really? At most a few cuts and bruises, some complete idiot throwing down a fire extinguisher.

    Vandalism yes, but targeted at the right target in my book?

    Negative press? Not for most students or opponents of the coalition I warrant. There will be more demonstrations in two weeks time and I would argue that the vandalism which caused a disproportionate interest and pro-government partisanship from the news media late in the day actually achieved a lot of good publicity (as well as negative).

    I think beating people up is ‘thuggery’, vandalising buildings, not so sure. It certainly achieved more attention than the march would have achieved otherwise. It means that a lot more people are seeing that there really are lots of people taking ‘action’ against government decisions…. some of the first of this actio . Peaceful protest in a perfectly safe environment on its own has never been enough to achieve real change or get taken notice of.

    No, I sympathise with those who took direction action, although not those who were violent towards people. I think they have brought their agenda to the national media, and that they will, as such, be joined by many others in two weeks time. After all, it’s not like Cameron, Johnson, Osbourne et al. didn’t vandalise during their student days, in the name of the Bullingdon club. Reading Cameron’s seech, rank with hypocricy, actually made me feel a little ill.

  • George W. Potter 11th Nov '10 - 11:30pm

    Rob – what violence was there? Well eight people were taken to hospital as a result of their injuries and with glass being thrown into the crowd it could have been much worse. Not to mention that dozens of non tory businesses had offices in Millbank. I’m sure it’s completely justified that their office equipment was destroyed and that their files were burned. I’m sure they’ll be able to bear the cost of replacing it all and finding alternative premises while repair are carried out. I’m sure they can afford it and they won’t have to make people redundant. And, I’m sure innocent office withers didn’t mind being scared out of their wits.

  • @Rob: How might you consider it if I chose to express my disagreement with your post by vandalising your home? I’m not sure it would reflect positively on me or my position.

  • I am a lib dem member. I was at Millbank yesterday (I stood to one side and watched as disability prevents me from getting more involved).

    The majority of violence was perpetrated by the TSG thugs (the majority of people injured were protesters not police including people like me who were injured but didn’t seek medical attention). I was nearly knocked to the ground and was smacked with a riot shield, hard enough to leave me with a dead arm for some time simply because I was unable to move quickly enough out of the way when the TSG wanted to clear the area I and a few other photographers and observers, about 10 of us, were standing. Despite several people trying to protect me and them and myself trying to politely ask the TSG guys to slow down a bit so I could get out of the way, despite the fact that they could clearly see I was walking with the aid of a stick, despite the fact I was not in the main body of the protest and despite the fact we were standing quietly to one side not bothering anyone or shouting or anything.

    Civil disobeadiance is a time honoured way of getting people to listen to you and has worked over and over again from the boston tea party to the suffragettes all the way to stonewall. People feel that labour abandoned them long ago that the conservatives are, as usual, out for the rich and that the parliamentary lib dems have lied to and betrayed them. There is no one left for us to talk to so yesterday afternoon they shouted. That shout got them front page coverage on every newspaper rather than a short story and picture on page 3 or 4 or later. It got them lead stories on every news channel and has made us the focus of a lot of political coverage and you know what beyond the expected wailing and gnashing of teeth from the murdoch empire there’s a lot of positive in there.

    Violence against people is wrong. But I simply can’t get that worked up over a window I’d rather they got in by breaking a window than got in by breaking through the police. I support a general strike, I support walkouts. I support defending ourselves from the attacks on the poor, the disabled, the elderly and others because this is not what we were promised. watching ,myself, my friends, my family being penalised and demonised for being poor and/or disabled and having aspirations is neither why I joined the lib dems nor why I voted for them.

    If they won’t listen to us when we try and reason with them what other course of action is left? When do we say this enough? When do we stop acting like some puppy that’s been kicked but still tries to appease it’s master regardless? When do we stop letting them protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and vulnerable?

  • vince thurnell 12th Nov '10 - 7:15am

    Without what went on at Millbank the March would of had a few seconds on the news. Its wrong but thats the way it is , the only way to get headlines on the news is by doing something like what went on at Millbank.

    As for the violence, do me a favour that wasn’t violence, what went on during the miners strike and the poll tax riots was violence, but then again the police were caught out on Wednesday and were so outnumbered it would of been suicidal to start hitting people.

  • Vandalising a building is a trivial crime compared to Vandalising an accessible education system..

    These are the facts libdems. You are taking an active role in executing policies your party used to condemn, policies I and many didn’t vote for. Policies that will have a dramatic affect on people’s lives, way beyond abstract chatter on blogs.

    Condone this action ? No… Condemn it a little. But you’d have to be wilfully ignorant not to understand where this anger is coming from.

  • @ dave and many others

    The hypocracy form Labour on this is pretty smelly. From the tone of comments here and elsewhere you would have thought Labour, while in Government and in the election campaign reduced/abolished student fees and/or promised to do so, and had nothing to do with Lord Browne’s report.

    The truth is, of course, that the Labour Government maintained and increased fees, and commissioned Browne’s report, sertting its frame of reference.

    By all means attack Lib Dems for a broken promise: that is entirely legitimate. But a more honest and self consistant way of describing the underlying politics is probably something like:

    “Now you niave Lib Dems have discoverd the reality of power you understand you can’t make foolish promises. We are so glad you have at last come round to our understanding that student tuition fees are inevitable and bound to increase.

    And by the way, in my opinion the party should not support the Browne report and legislation/government action that puts it into effect.

  • Grammar Police 12th Nov '10 - 10:44am

    @ Matt – Labour said nothing about tuition fees in 2010 (after tripling them in 2004, despite a manifesto commitment not to). Indeed, what it said was it had introduced the Browne review.

    I think people are fooling themselves if they think Labour would be doing anything better than what’s on the table (which is a graduate tax in all but name). As Alan Johnson said, they are “proud” of the decision to introduce fees.

    This is the reality of coalition government – means that the pledges you made in your manifesto, which are based on you having a majority Govt after the election, can’t always be kept. When a party only win 23% it seems odd for people to jump up and down when compromises have to be made over a policy that the other two parties actually agree on!

    What is annoying about this debate is that the baby has been well and truly thrown out with the bath water. The end of up front fees for part time students, the raising of the re-payment threshold for fees and loans are a good thing.

  • George W. Potter 12th Nov '10 - 10:51am

    For those who seem to think the violence was nothing worth getting upset about, you may be interested to know that there’s a young man in hospital at the moment with brain damage after being hit with a brick outside Millbank. Explain to me how that can possibly be justified.

  • @Grammar Police
    “I think people are fooling themselves if they think Labour would be doing anything better than what’s on the table (which is a graduate tax in all but name).”

    The Browne proposals are regressive above middle incomes with those on higher salaries paying a smaller proportion of their income than those on 25-40k. It’s nothing like a graduate tax (proportional to income).

  • @George Potter

    If the protest had been entirely peaceful, it wouldn’t have received any attention and your concerns would have been dismissed by those you seek to influence.

    If part of the protest becomes unruly, attempts are made to demean your concerns by the same people.

    Protests have a propensity to the expression of anger which increases with the size of the protest.

    It happens. Get over it. Don’t stop protesting.

  • I am very sorry to hear that anyone was hurt, but I never condoned violence agaisnt people in my post.

    Vandalism on occasions is both understandable and in fact useful, but maybe not ‘right’.

    Yet the Tory party feels they can launch an attack on certain groups of society, I think their headquaters is basically fair game. Again, it’s not like Cameron, Osborne and Johnson don’t condone vandalism against totally innocent targets (whether today or in their student Bullingdon days), they simply lead by example.

    And I would say there is a difference between targetting a person’s house and targetting an administrative building which signs up to be actually representative of the ideology you choose to fight. Not that targetting innocent people’s homes was above Cameron, Osbourne and Johnson anyway.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 12th Nov '10 - 1:14pm

    Rob, the “complete idiot” who threw a fire extinguisher from the roof should count him (or her) self lucky not to be facing a charge for murder or manslaughter.

    The tragedy is that when violence and/or vandalism hijacks a peaceful protest, it is the actions of the perpetrators thereof and the effectivenenss or otherwise of the police in dealing with them which become the main subject of subsequent media coverage and debate, diverting attention, and public sympathy, from the issue to which the protesters set out to draw attention.

    So, please, do not defend the people who attacked Millbank Tower (of which, by the way, Tory campaign workers are not the only tenants). They did nothing to enhance the NUS’ case.

    And, RichardSM, you are quite wrong. The peaceful protest outside the Palace of Westminster was being shown live on both 24 hour tv news channels, juxtaposed with earlier footage of the exchanges between Harman and Clegg during Question Time, up until the point when the action around and within Millbank Tower became the main story of the day

  • George Potter:
    “…there’s a young man in hospital at the moment with brain damage after being hit with a brick outside Millbank.”

    Source?

  • @George

    Thanks for the retraction. I agree it was a miracle that nobody was seriously hurt (or worse, given the fire extinguisher incident), but I’ve seen that rumour being flung around as well and it’s not very helpful. We already have sufficient cause to question and criticise the violent actions of a minority, without resorting to emotive terms such as ‘brain damage’ (information which presumably only the medical team and relatives of the injured person would be party to anyway!)

  • @George Porter

    I think you are right to say a sit in would have been just as an effective and more reasonable action.

    I am just saying that I don’t think the vandalism was unsuprising, particularly worrying or necessarily ‘bad’ for the movement. That doesn’t make it ‘right’, only perhaps, understandable.

  • The point isn’t what Labour would do or might have done. The point is that we made a promise on tuition fees indeed “a solemn pledge” to do something that the other main parties wouldn’t do. And we won more than one seat from Labour on that basis.

    Breaking that pledge is so shocking. It makes me white with anger at Nick and Vince.

  • paul barker 12th Nov '10 - 3:35pm

    A few simple facts might be helpful, the building attacked was Millbank Tower, Tory HQ is in 30 Millbank nearby. Nearly 200 students got into the building – through the font entrance. The windows were smashed from the inside mostly, after people had got in.

  • Adam Gillett 12th Nov '10 - 4:17pm

    The shocking aspect is that many in the NUS have signed a letter defending the the violence. They have no regrets about creating a mob, even though it went so far off-target. They’re too immature to see that they don’t own the mob, and if they condone it it will eat them up and everything they stand for.

  • @Adam Gillet

    ‘They have no regrets about creating a mob, even though it went so far off-target.’

    I wouldn’t hae any regrets about creating a protest either… which is distinct from about 100 radicals/

  • Adam Gillett 12th Nov '10 - 5:10pm

    I’m not talking about the protest. I’m talking about the mob. Hence my use of the word ‘mob’ and not ‘protest’. Not to sound angry, but I am.

  • vince thurnell 12th Nov '10 - 8:36pm

    Adam, maybe this is what happens when large sections of society no longer feel they’re being listened to and feel let down by the political system. Similar happened under the Thatcher years and more of the same will probably happen again as more and more people feel so desperate about their plight that they feel they have nothing left to lose.

  • “The same minority who’ll happily smash something up for the hell of it. In a crowd of 50,000 they were bound to be there – they do not represent the rest of us and anybody who claims their violence was justified is a moronic thug”

    Well I know personally extremely intelligent people who were there who don’t meet your description. I think you must be rather innocent if you believe that only drunken skinheads do these kinds of things. Just because you disagree with their actions does not make them a clearly identifiable or stereotypical group, certainly reasonable people can get angry and vandaliseas well as do lots of other naughty things…. that in itself does not fit into your parochial world view of good well bheaved gentlemen vs nasty thugs.

    And whilst you are free, as a fellow liberal. to call me a moronic thug, if you knew me personally I think I could convince you to change your opinion.

  • vince thurnell 13th Nov '10 - 12:00am

    George Kendall, and when all three political parties lie to the electorate you are also departing from democratic politics.

    George Potter, are you saying then that in the Thatcher era when serious public disorder broke out , all of the miners , printers and anyone that lived in an inner city was a mindless thug ?.

  • @George W Potter

    Your lead article showed signs of prejudice, as do some posts on this page. The news is that a 23 year-old student at Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge, has been arrested and bailed for the fire extinguisher incident.

    The extinguisher incident was the act of an idiot, but he’s just one person. The fact there was trouble on Wednesday doesn’t alter, in any way, the validity of the protest.

    Apert from the extinguisher, I don’t have any concerns about the way the protest turned out. What concerns me more is that our bright, young students – our future talent – stormed the wrong building!

  • .
    @George W Potter

    “Being intelligent and being a moron are not mutually exclusive”.

    Yes, they are!

  • @George W Potter

    Thank you for conceding that you’re learning from a cretin.

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