As thousands of young people and students once again march in London to demand an end to tuition fees, author of ‘Student Protest: Voices of the Austerity Generation’ Matt Myers remembers the brief but influential student movement of 2010, which celebrated its seventh anniversary last weekend.
“A major moment in the history of 21st century Britain,” Myers described the 2010 UK student movement, which lasted almost exactly a month from the smashing of Millbank windows in November to the ‘kettling’ of protesters in December.
Speaking at a Warwick for Free Education event on 31 October, Myers linked this short-lived outburst of student revolt to the contemporary emergence of a viable, anti-austerity alternative in the form of the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party, which shocked the nation in the June snap election earlier year by drastically reducing Theresa May’s Tory Party majority in UK Parliament.
“More than anything [the 2010 student movement] fractured the consensus view in British politics that young people were disengaged, apathetic and out of touch with politics,” Myers argued. “[It] showed that it was the politicians who were out of touch with young people.”
“The political class did not listen,” he added, “and now they are suffering the consequences.”
Occupations and kettles
The student movement began exactly a week after David Cameron – then Prime Minister of the Lib-Dem-Tory Coalition government – announced at Prime Minster’s Questions on 3 November 2010 that he intended to triple university tuition fees in England to £9000 and cut the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).
In response, the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU) called a national demonstration in Central London, which attracted 50,000 mainly students and lecturers, far more than the 20,000 expected by the Metropolitan Police.
The protest itself did not go quite to plan, as students broke off from the police-approved route that was supposed to take people in an orderly fashion from Whitehall past Downing Street and Parliament Square, ending with a rally at Tate Britain.
“A small group attempted to occupy – against the wishes of the NUS leadership – the headquarters of the Tory Party,” Myers recounted.
Protesters began to gather outside the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank, with some finding their way into the building and even making their way onto the roof, catching police completely unprepared.
Events seemed to take a turn for the worse as one protester – Edward Woolard – appeared with a fire extinguisher, which he then threw at the police below. The move was countered with instant disapproval by the crowd watching on, who were eventually ‘kettled’ by the Territorial Support Group called in to help the overwhelmed police.
Kettling is a police tactic for controlling large crowds during demonstrations or protests which involves the formation of large cordons of police, who then move to contain a crowd within a limited area. Protesters are left only one choice of exit or are completely prevented from leaving, with the effect of denying the protesters access to food, water and toilet facilities for an arbitrary period determined by the police.
This tactic came under fire at the later 9 November demonstration, when protesters again descended on Parliament Square as Parliament voted on the tuition fee rise, and were promptly kettled by the police for most of the day. Eventually police moved protesters onto Westminster Bridge where adults and children stood in the freezing cold for over two hours.
During the protest, police also hit demonstrators on the head with batons, resulting in tens of people being treated in a St John’s Ambulance ‘field hospital’. One protester – Alfie Meadows – had to go to hospital after being hit, requiring emergency brain surgery.
Oh, Jeremy Corbyn
Myers pointed out that, following the 9 November demonstration, Theresa May – at the time Home Secretary – praised in a speech to Parliament the “great bravery and professionalism” of the Metropolitan Police “in the face of violence and provocation”.
Theresa May also claimed that while “a cordon was placed around Parliament Square”, those “who remained peaceful and wished to leave” were able to do so. This claimed was later contradicted by journalists who has also been part of the police kettled by police.
“Some students behaved disgracefully” May went on, adding that “the protests were infiltrated by organised groups of hardcore activists and street gangs bent on violence”.
“I want to be absolutely clear: the blame for the violence lies squarely and solely with those who carried it out,” May concluded. “The idea – that some have advanced – that police tactics were to blame when people came armed with sticks, flares, fireworks, stones and snooker balls, is as ridiculous as it is unfair.”
In contrast, both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn defended the actions of students, arguing that the protests had been a legitimate response to a series of inhumane and irrational policy decisions made by the Coalition government under the banner of ‘austerity’.
It is not surprising that young people today trust Corbyn, Myers pointed out, as he was “the only person in Parliament who raised his voice to speak for the students and question Theresa May”.
“There is something about 2010 that shows there is a major generational cleavage that is ripping the heart of British politics open,” he concluded.
Past, present and future
Myers is currently travelling the country promoting his book ‘Student Protest: Voices of the Austerity Generation’, which is available now from Pluto Press.
His intention in writing his book on the student movement was, on the one hand, to “create a document that would allow [the experiences of those involved” not to be lost to oblivion” and, on the other, to create both a “tradition” a “tool” for “new generations of students” in their struggles for free education and change in society.
The demo in London today was organised by key players in the 2010 student movement, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, which is calling “for an end to tuition fees, for living grants, and for an education system that serves people not profit”.