Tens of thousands of students took to the streets of London today in a demonstration that spiralled out of control when a fringe group of protesters hurled missiles at police and occupied the building housing Conservative party headquarters.
Tonight both ministers and protesters acknowledged that the demonstration – by far the largest and most dramatic yet in response to the government’s austerity measures – was “just the beginning” of public anger over cuts. Police, meanwhile, were criticised for failing to anticipate the scale of the disorder.
An estimated 52,000 people, according to the National Union of Students, marched through central London to display their anger over government plans to increase tuition fees while cutting state funding for university teaching.
A wing of the protest turned violent as around 200 people stormed 30 Millbank, the central London building that is home to Tory HQ, where police wielding batons clashed with a crowd hurling placard sticks, eggs and some bottles.
Demonstrators shattered windows and waved anarchist flags from the roof of the building, while masked activists traded punches with police to chants of “Tory scum”.
However, Police have conceded that they had failed to anticipate the level of violence from protesters who trashed the lobby of the Millbank building.
Missiles including a fire extinguisher were thrown from the roof and clashes saw 14 people – a mix of officers and protesters – taken to hospital and 35 arrests.
Sir Paul Stephenson, Met police commissioner, said the force should have anticipated the level ofviolence better. He said: “It’s not acceptable. It’s an embarrassment for London and for us.”
While Tory headquarters suffered the brunt of the violence, Liberal Democrat headquarters in nearby Cowley Street were not targeted.
“This is not what we pay the Met commissioner to do,” one senior Conservative told the Guardian. “It looks like they put heavy security around Lib Dem HQ but completely forgot about our party HQ.”
Lady Warsi, the Tory party chair, was in her office when protesters broke in. She initially had no police protection as the protesters made their way up the fire stairs to the roof. Police who eventually made it to Tory HQ decided not to evacuate staff from the building but to concentrate on removing the demonstrators.
The NUS president, Aaron Porter, condemned the actions of “a minority of idiots” but hailed the turnout as the biggest student demonstration in generations. The largely good-natured protest was organised by the NUS and the lecturers’ union the UCU, who have attacked coalition plans to raise tuition fees as high as £9,000 while making 40% cuts to university teaching budgets.
The higher fees will be introduced for undergraduates starting in 2012, if the proposals are sanctioned by the Commons in a vote due before Christmas. The NUS president told protesters: “We’re in the fight of our lives. We face an unprecedented attack on our future before it has even begun.
They’re proposing barbaric cuts that would brutalise our colleges and universities.”
Inside parliament the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg – the focus of much anger among protesters for his now abandoned pledge to scrap all tuition fees – came under sustained attack, facing 10 questions on tuition fees during his stand-in performance during prime minister’s questions. He said there was consensus across the parties about the need to reform the system.
Labour’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman, said the rise in fees was not part of the effort to tackle the deficit but about Clegg “going along with Tory plans to shove the cost of higher education on to students and their families”. She said: “We all know what it’s like: you are at freshers’ week, you meet up with a dodgy bloke and you do things that you regret. Isn’t it true he has been led astray by the Tories, isn’t that the truth of it?”
Meanwhile one student won an unexpected concession from the coalition yesterday. In answer to a question from a Chinese student during his trip to China, David Cameron said: “Raising tuition fees will do two things. It will make sure our universities are well funded and we won’t go on increasing so fast the fees for overseas students … We have done the difficult thing. We have put up contributions for British students.
Britain’s most senior police officer was tonight forced to admit he was “embarrassed” that his officers had lost control of the capital’s streets in scenes reminiscent of last year’s G20 demonstration.
Promising an immediate inquiry, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, condemned what he called “thuggish, loutish behaviour by criminals” and conceded his officers had failed to plan for violence.
“It’s not acceptable, it’s an embarrassment to London and to us and we have to do something about that,” he said. “I think we’ve also got to ask ourselves some questions. This level of violence was largely unexpected, and what lessons can we learn for the future? We are already doing that and asking those questions. Certainly I am determined to have a thorough investigation into this matter.”
“This is intolerable and all those involved will be pursued and they will face the full force of the law,” Johnson said. “The Metropolitan Police commissioner has assured me that there will be a vigorous post-incident investigation. He will also be reviewing police planning and response.”
Last night, Scotland Yard’s press bureau told reporters they expected “nothing out of the ordinary” from today’s march, and repeatedly played down suggestions the event was comparable to the G20 protest.
A Met source said: “You’re saying this is going to be the biggest demonstration of the year.
But it has not built up anything like the G20 demonstrations – you can’t draw a parallel there. This is a demonstration, we deal with them all the time.”
The source added: “They [the NUS] are saying there will be 20,000 [protesters]. I could say, ‘I’m going to do a march tomorrow and there will be 50,000 people out there.’ But there may not be.”
The Met’s press bureau refused to put out substantial details of its policing plan, claiming it was not necessary for an event of the anticipated scale. Other sources revealed police had been expecting fewer than 15,000 protesters, and had only drafted in 225 officers to steward the event
Those numbers turned out to be woefully inadequate, and a thin line of constables with minimal protection tried in vain to defend the entrance to 30 Millbank alone. It was about an hour before reinforcements from the specially trained territorial support group (TSG) arrived. Several of those officers were taken away from the scene bleeding.
The Met’s public order policing unit, known as CO11, was roundly criticised after its policing operation at the G20 demonstration, when there were chaotic clashes with protesters and an attack on the newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson, who collapsed and died. Controversy over the Met’s handling of the G20 prompted two parliamentary inquiries and a national review of public order policing tactics by Sir Denis O’Connor, the chief inspector of constabulary.
Asked whether the loss of control of the streets was embarrassing, Sir Paul replied: “Well the one thing I would say is that it must have been an awful time for the people trying to go about their daily business in those buildings. I feel terribly sorry that they have had to go through what must have been quite a traumatic experience.
“We are determined to make sure that sort of thing does not happen again on our streets. I’m clear on that, the Met is clear on that.”
Additional reporting by Rachel Williams and Matthew Taylor