10 years on from the tuition fee vote, writer Ben Smoke reflects on the chaos of a day that would shape the future politics of a generation.
10 years on from the tuition fee vote, writer Ben Smoke reflects on the violence and chaos of a day that would shape the future politics of a generation.
I can still remember the blood. Gushing, deep red. Pouring out of a wound on the side of the head of a kid that couldn’t have been more than 15 years old. He was clasping a clump of tissue to it, trying to stem the bleeding, looking dazed in the crowd. There were drops of it on the collar of his white school shirt.
It was December 9th, 2010, and all hell had broken loose in Parliament Square – but the day had started quiet. I met my friends at some ungodly hour at Bristol bus station. Each of us arrived groggy and bleary-eyed, clutching the placards we’d made for the demonstration. We put them in the luggage hold and clambered aboard, setting off for London. Traffic on the roads delayed us, so we arrived later than we’d intended, hurriedly running from Victoria coach station to jump on a tube across central London.
As we reached Russell Square, the small space next to the elevators was packed with students. Lots were carrying their own homemade placards, many adorned with face paint. The crowd for the two ancient lifts were packed in tight, swarming forward each time one arrived back down. Worried about missing the start, we opted to take the arduous 175 step climb.
Red-faced and out of breath, we barrelled out of the tube station into the cold morning, the streets full of people heading in the same direction. As we picked our way past SOAS and Birbeck onto Malet Street, the sheer scale of the protest became apparent.
40,000 angry students, shouting and chanting, packed into the small Bloomsbury street. The noise and the roar echoed off the buildings. Over and over, to the tune of My Darling Clementine, we sang: “Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the Tories on the top. Put the Lib Dems in the middle and we’ll burn the fucking lot”.
The refrain of “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts” filled the street, drowning out the speakers at the front of the march. You could feel the anger, determination and desperation viscerally.
It’d been a gruelling four weeks of demonstrations, kicked off by a demonstration on November 10th which saw 50,000 people march through London in protest at the proposed tripling of university tuition fees. That march saw the occupation of Millbank Tower, then HQ of the Tory party, and brutal battles between the police and demonstrators.
I watched the rolling news coverage of Millbank on my laptop in my small bedsit in Bristol. I’d always been political, precociously so as a child, but until that point, I’d never been involved in any activism; never been to a demo or a political meeting. As I sat there watching armoured riot police beat young students with batons, I felt something inside me shift. It felt like we had to do something – so, we started hatching a plan.
Two weeks later, I helped organise a walkout of around 600 students from my sixth-form college on the edge of the city in protest of the fees. We blew a considerable chunk of the student union budget for the year on coaches to take everyone into the city to join students from universities and colleges across Bristol.
Inevitably, organising hundreds of excitable and riled up teenagers onto coaches did not go as smoothly as planned, and we were late leaving. When we arrived, the demo had already started and so we found ourselves legging it up to Park Street – a hill one might generously describe as being a bit steep.
As I ran out in front, megaphone in hand, chanting and shouting, I glanced back at the crowd, marching at speed in the middle of the road and I felt a rush go through my body. It felt momentous.
As we reached the crest of the hill I realised – still being quite new to the city – that I had no idea where I was going. I sheepishly skirted over to a police officer and asked which way it was to the demo. He rolled his eyes, shook his head and gestured right.
The energy of the crowd outside the University of Bristol hit you before the noise, like the flash of lightning before the rolling din of accompanying thunder. The rally had already started, and they erupted when we arrived. The compere called out from the makeshift stage asking for one of us to speak. I was pushed forward.
That afternoon, for the first time ever, I spoke in front of thousands of people. As I spoke I could feel the anger pour out of me, wrenched up from the bottom of my feet, through my body and out into the faces of the kids all staring back at me. “We can’t let them do this!”, I remember crying out.
Later that night, my then-boyfriend and I were watching Newsnight to see the coverage of the demos. Up on the screen behind them was a picture of a figure addressing a crowd. It was taken from behind, so you could see the faces of the mass of people in front, screaming back. The figure was wearing a grey hoodie and fluorescent jacket, arm raised, pointing out at them. I looked at it for a second, before looking down at my body, still cloaked in the hoodie and jacket from earlier, realising that the figure in the picture was me.
As the segment on the demos, which had taken place in cities and town across the country, played on TV, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of being part of something. Up and down the country, kids like me had marched out of their classrooms and lecture halls, taken to the streets, shouted, chanted, made speeches and stood together.
The next week we didn’t have the budget for more coaches but still, hundreds of students walked out, caught buses and lifts into town and marched again. We ran around, avoiding lines of police trying to box us in. Cat and mouse across the centre of the city for hours and hours until we couldn’t feel our feet anymore. They eventually caught up with us at the University and kettled the demo.
Across the country, momentum was building. It was all to come to a head on December 9th, when MPs would vote on the proposals. A march was organised from the then University of London Union through the centre of London, finishing outside Parliament. We’d be there as they voted.
The police led the march into the square and halted us along the north side of it. Access to the grassy centre was blocked by harris fencing. We were in the centre of the crowd, too far back to see why we were being held on a narrow bit of road but too far in to do anything but stand and wait.
Eventually, the fencing came down and we took the square. The hours that came after that are a blur. The police surrounded us, kettling us in the square as violence broke out at each of the entrances and exits. Barriers had been erected outside Parliament to stop us getting too close. Lines and lines of riot cops surrounded us, swinging their batons with wanton disregard for limbs and skulls. It was carnage.
A field hospital was set up as kid after kid fell under the batons. The crowd used sections of the fencing as battering rams against the police lines. Pushing and shoving, trying to break free. I was next to the Abbey when they charged us with horses.
One second, a line of riot police were bearing down on us, swinging and bashing, the next they fell away like water. I looked up and saw the horses, charging directly at us. I don’t even think my feet touched the floor. I was lifted up with the crowd as it parted, thrust up against the railings of the Abbey as I watched mounted police gallop into the mass. The anger and fury of the crowd was instantaneous.
Demonstrators threw baubles filled with paint at them, eventually pushing them back as the line of riot police reformed and the fighting continued. At some point, a security hut was set on fire. We stood close to warm ourselves up. At about 5:30 pm, we got the news that we’d lost. Parliament had voted to triple fees for university and slash grants. The place erupted. Someone had sprayed “Education for the masses” on the base of the Churchill statue. Someone else shouted, “This is the treasury” and pointed at the HMT building as people started smashing the windows of the lower floor.
The sky was a blur of missiles and lumps of concrete as the fighting only got more intense. The police, heavily armoured, kept pushing, swinging, bashing. Blood flowed in the streets. People got really hurt.
At some point, probably around 8 pm, the air had calmed. People were still not able to leave, but most gathered around bonfires in the centre of the square. Occasional skirmishes broke out between police and protestors but, on the whole, everything was eerily quiet.
I was with a friend who was diabetic. They desperately needed to leave to eat. After several attempts, we finally convinced a police officer to let us through, and out of the kettle. We walked up Whitehall shaken. Completely silent. Police vans lined the sides of the road, all the way up. There were a couple of paint speckled horses being tended to. I barely registered them.
Those left in the square would eventually be pushed onto Westminster bridge and held, in overcrowded, chaotic conditions until late in the cold night.
It’s been a decade and I can still hear the screams. I can still picture the agony on the faces of people clutching head wounds. Still smell the acrid smoke from the burning security booth. The sensations from those hectic hours in the square seared themselves into the souls of my generation. For people who were there, you need only say ‘Parliament Square’ and the memories come flooding back.
For lots of us, it was our first taste of the full and destructive power of the state. As a white working-class kid, I knew the toxicity of the police, nowhere near as much as my Black friends, but I understood it. Even that wasn’t enough to prepare me for the calculated, callous and co-ordinated brutality of the Met on that day.
Those baton swings. The horse charge. The pain and the violence and the terror radicalised me. It radicalised lots of us.
The loss of the vote that day decimated us. The student movement, already fracturing during the weeks of action, descended into chaos. I watched from afar. Not really involved, but present. It’s easy for what happened that autumn to feel cloaked, smothered almost, in failure. But it’s more complicated than that.
I’ve lost count of the number of demonstrations I’ve been on since. Lost count of the number of times I’ve seen batons drawn, skulls crunched. How many horse charges and kettles I’ve been in. How many speeches I’ve seen, and how many I’ve given. How many placards I’ve made, how many meetings I’ve been in, organised, advertised.
After the student demos, I got involved in the movements for anti-austerity movement, anti-war, climate, migrant rights. I’ve laid down in roads, occupied places, chained myself to a bloody plane. All of the actions, marches and demos – for me, all of them trace back to the student movement.
It’s almost serendipitous that this anniversary should be just four days before exactly one year since the 2019 general election. Losing the battle over student fees hurt, but losing the election was like pain I’d never felt before.
I sat counting down the seconds until the exit poll. As the Tory majority was announced, I felt all the air leave my lungs. I couldn’t process it. Couldn’t understand it. How could this happen? We had a world to win, and we lost it.
The trauma from that defeat has scarred me, and so many of my friends. It sliced us open, gutted and crushed us. For weeks, I felt like giving up. What was the point? We’d thrown everything we had at it and we’d been decimated. All that hope for the future, wiped clean away.
When reflecting on that devastating election defeat, I think back to that day in Parliament Square. That loss. That sadness. And I think about everything that had come after it. Every battle we’d fought. Every time we’d won. Every time we hadn’t and I realised how important it was, and it is, to never give up.
In the face of defeat, there’s nothing else we can do but dust ourselves off, heal ourselves, rest and then stand back up and carry on fighting. In the battles and the campaigns we’re yet to fight, how many young kids will stand up to make their first speech? How many people will take their first steps into fighting for a better, more just, more hopeful world? How many first placards, first chants, first marches will they ignite?
We don’t just owe it to them to keep fighting, we owe it to ourselves. We need everybody we can get to stand with us. To fight alongside us. To lead us into that world that one day, we are going to win.
Ben Smoke is Huck’s Politics Editor. Follow him on Twitter.