Published on November 12, 2012 | by Stephanie Richardson and Mikkel Stern-Peltz


Lessons learned from 2010 demos

Despite protests fees have risen under the new government [Alastair Johnstone]

November 2010 saw a series of demonstrations across the UK, following a government proposal to make cuts to further education and increase university tuition fees.

What started as a peaceful student protest – mainly in the capital – turned to mayhem and rioting on the streets of central London. Two years later, ALN takes a look at the series of events leading up to the occupation of the Millbank Tower and the causes, effects and outcomes of the protests.

The cause

In the run-up to the General Election in May 2010, a study called the Browne Review was published by the Labour Party to investigate higher education funding in England. At the time, the Liberal Democrats leader, Nick Clegg assured voters that he opposed an increase in tuition fees and would vote against any such changes if he were elected to Parliament.

However, the elections resulted in a hung Parliament and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with the Conservative Party. Consequently, the Browne Review was published in October 2010 and instead of removing the existing tuition fees cap of £3,290, the government decided to keep the cap but at an increased rate of £9,000.

Once in government, Clegg reneged on his original opposition to the rise in tuition fees, choosing to support them – a decision he defended on the day of the protests.

The government insisted that the rise in tuition fees was for the benefit of the country. While opponents claimed raising tuition fees would prevent poorer students attending university, the government were adamant that it would help to improve the current university system.

Following the proposals from the government, the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU) organised a demonstration against the cuts, that was pre-approved by the Metropolitan Police.

On November 10, 2010, around 50,000 protesters from across the country took to the streets of central London to attend the demonstration, known as Fund Our Future: Stop Education Cuts. Starting peacefully, the largely student-led protest marched from Whitehall past Downing Street and Parliament chanting slogans and carrying placards.

What happened at Millbank?

Around an hour after the protests begun, the scenes took a dramatic turn close to the Tate Britain art gallery, where the march was scheduled to finish with a rally.

Several thousand protesters surrounded 30 Millbank despite the best efforts from NUS organisers to stop them. Since the Metropolitan Police were only expecting 20,000 protestors, a mere 225 police officers were commissioned to police the event.

Police have been widely criticised on their handling of protesters [Photograph by James Gourley]

Violence broke out at the Millbank Tower in Westminster, where the Conservative Party headquarters are situated. Hundreds of workers were evacuated from the tower as approximately 200 people broke in to occupy the building.

Protesters began to vandalise the building from the inside by shattering windows, smashing up furniture and setting placards on fire. Roughly 50 protesters made their way to the roof, where they retaliated to riot police by dropping eggs, shards of glass  and one student was imprisoned for throwing a fire extinguisher.

The 200-strong riot police officers from the Territorial Support Group surrounded the building, forced the protestors into the lobby, where arrests were made. In total, the clashes with the police led to 14 people being hospitalised, while 50 were arrested.

Although the main protest occurred in central London, further demonstrations were held across the UK in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Bristol and Liverpool, with anti-globalisation protests also running simultaneously across the globe in various locations including Milan, Naples, Venice, Genoa and Rome.

The effects

Following the events on November 10, the rioting was initially blamed  on a group of anarchists. However, it was later revealed that the violence at the Millbank Tower had been initiated by a small collective who deviated from the main march, according to The Guardian’s live updates from the day.

The small minority of protestors that became violent during the demonstration were blamed for undermining and drawing the focus away from the main cause of the march, since their behaviour defined what would remain in the public’s memory.

A series of much smaller related protests took place across the country following the rioting in central London, including a sit-in at the University of Manchester on November 11 and a gathering of protestors outside The Guardian offices on November 23.

Students also occupied a number of different universities across the country on November 23, including London Southbank University, University of Edinburgh, University College London and the University of Bristol.

Following these smaller demonstrations, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) arranged a demonstration and national walkout of education on November 24, which became the second most significant protest to take place in London.

Across the UK, approximately 25,000 university students and school children alike took the day off from their studies to join the demonstration.

In London, the protests began at Trafalgar Square, where they moved slowly to Whitehall. Riot police barricaded the route towards Parliament Square, to prevent the demonstrators from moving towards the Houses of Parliament.

Outside Whitehall, the police ‘kettled’ a crowd of roughly 200 demonstrators. Although most of the crowd were peaceful, clashes soon broke out with the police as protestors tried to push through the riot officers and vandalised a police van.

These protests were not as severe as the events of November 10, but 41 people were still arrested following the second demonstration.

On November 28, approximately 300 protesters assembled outside Lewisham Town Hall in Catford to protest against the wider public sector cuts.

Demonstrators – mainly consisting of students from nearby sixth forms and Goldsmiths College – forced their way into the building, where a smokebomb was set off. Windows were smashed and flares let off, while one member climbed to the roof and hung a banner.

On December 9, two separate demonstrations were organised in central London, since the vote on education reform was scheduled in the Houses of Parliament.

With one being led by the NUS and the other by the ULU and NCAFC, 40,000 protestors were expected to attend. The demonstrators marched from Bloomsbury to Parliament Square, where they pushed down metal police barriers and occupied the square.

Fires were lit and the grass spray-painted, in protest to the increased cap on tuition fees. However, the scene remained fairly calm and thousands of protestors were ‘kettled’ in the square and then later dispersed.

The outcome

Since the initial protest on November 10 was understaffed by the Metropolitan Police, the demonstrations that followed were overwhelmed with riot police officers, kettling protesters at any given opportunity.

The policing tactics came under fire at Whitehall on November 24, when children were detained for periods of four hours or more. Furthermore, the police were accused of being too heavy handed, when at the protests in London on December 9, a YouTube video – which was shown on various news channels – captured Jody McIntyre, a cerebral palsy sufferer being pulled out of his wheelchair by police.

The police defended their actions by claiming that they were acting in the interest of his own safety, however, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) received nearly 50 complaints about police behaviour during the countrywide protests. The majority of the complaints, which included accusations of violence against protesters, were aimed against the Metropolitan Police.

Following the protests on November 30, the Welsh Assembly declared that it would not increase tuition fees for Welsh students. This means an English student could pay triple the amount of tuition fees for a three-year degree at a university in England, than a Welsh student on the same course in Wales.

This caused widespread controversy and came under fire from various opponents, explaining that this was not fair treatment for English students.

In the short term, the scenes at Millbank, two years ago, seemed to achieve very little. As the coalition government managed to raise university tuition fees, November 10 appeared to have been nothing but a protest that evolved into violence.

However, a recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute has found that the government miscalculated the cost that their policies would have on the public purse.

This finding, coupled with the many cuts to public spending over the past few years, has united the public in their views and approach to the government’s austerity measures.

Groups such as Bloomsbury Fightback! and UK Uncut – formed by both students and workers – oppose cuts to public spending and services, with the latter claiming that the cuts made “are based on ideology, not necessity”.

So although the impact of the protests seemed negligible at the time, educational, public and social policy are still issues that many are fighting for. In the long term, it is hard to state the outcome because the outcome is still to be decided.

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