Friday, 12 November 2010

An account of the demonstration against tuition fee increases

This is a cross-posting of an article I wrote for Liberal Democrat Voice

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.

*We also entered into a coalition to try and open the ash tray to put our chewing gum in but the coalition broke down in failure...

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