2010 student protest
A protester attacking a police van during the 2010 fees protests. Photo: Jack Taylor / Alamy Stock Photo

An Oral History of the 2010 Student Protests

"It was an awful thing the British state did to students. They decided to go after unarmed students who were protesting for the right reasons. And they got crushed."
December 12, 2019, 2:55pm

As the 2010 student protests features in VICE's 50 Moments That Defined Europe, we take a look back at how a fee hike led to 50,000 young people taking to the streets.

In 2009, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown commissioned a study into higher education spending.

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of a fees hike was unpopular among both young people and those who felt access to higher education shouldn't have anything to do with your family's access to cash. So when, in the run-up to 2010's general election, Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats pledged that they would vote against an increase in tuition fees, the party saw a surge of support from students.

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On the 12th of May, 2010, nearly a week after a general election left us with a hung parliament, it was announced that the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats would be forming a coalition government. Five months later, to the day, the Browne Report was published, recommending the government remove the £3,290 cap on tuition fees.

What came next was two months of protest, Britain being introduced to the concept of "kettling", prolonged occupations of university buildings and the Lib Dems losing the trust of anyone under 30. Almost a decade on, we spoke to the politicians, police and protesters who were involved in the 2010 student protests.

THE BUILD-UP

Aaron Porter, then president of the National Union of Students (NUS): I met Vince Cable at the Lib Dem conference in September. I made the point to him that it would be electoral suicide for the Lib Dems to break their promise not to increase tuition fees [all Lib Dem MPs had signed an individual NUS pledge before the election, promising not to raise fees]. He was incredibly uncomfortable.

Greg Mulholland, then Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West, who voted against tuition fees: The Lib Dems' opening line in the negotiations to form the coalition government should have been, "There can be no rise in tuition fees, because of the pledge we have signed." The Conservatives would have said yes, and that would have been the end of it. Lib Dem MPs should never have been put in the position where they were expected to break their own words. That was the tragedy of the coalition government.

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Thomas Barlow, who had just graduated from Manchester University: The Tories had a party conference in Birmingham that October. There was a big demo. When I got there, I realised that people were angry, and they were politically engaged. There was a black bloc of about 500 people, which was big. When you see a crew like that, it gives you a buzz. You're like, 'OK, stuff is going to kick off. People are up for it.'

The Browne Review is published on the 12th of October. It recommends removing the existing cap on tuition fees.

Aaron Porter: I was summoned to a meeting at Downing Street with David Cameron. He told me that the government would be lifting the fees cap. I told them that the NUS would be in opposition, and they should expect protests.

On the 3rd of November, the government announces that tuition fees will rise to £9,000 yearly.

Aaron Porter: My instinct before then had been to try and negotiate with the government. But when they announced that it was going to be 9k, it was easy. We ran out of road. We had to protest.

Thomas Barlow: The buses kept filling up. People couldn't get buses fast enough.

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Protesters on the Millbank roof. Photo: David Isaacson / Alamy Stock Photo

The 10th of November, 2010. Police expect 5,000 protesters at a central London march. Between 30,000 and 50,000 turn up.

Aaron Porter: Honestly, I was worried about not enough people turning up and it being a damp squib.

Thomas Barlow: We were excited. Something was in the air. Something was going to happen.

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Aaron Porter: I got there and I was overwhelmed by the numbers. There were so many more people there than I had anticipated.

Roger Gomm, then the Metropolitan Police Gold Commander responsible for overseeing the policing of the protest that day: Police used to monitor coach bookings before protests. If you know how many coaches are booked, you can predict how many people will turn up. But we [the Met] hadn't monitored coach bookings for a period. Internally, I don't think some of our structures were as sharp as they could have been for monitoring expected numbers. And I don't think students expected to get the numbers they got either. Perhaps we should have been more aware of the potential numbers. I wish we had been.

Thomas Barlow: We ended up near Millbank. There were about 500 people there, facing a building. Everyone was shouting. I asked where we were and someone said, "This is Millbank. This is Tory Party headquarters." I said, "Fucking sick."

Andy*, then a PC acting sergeant in the Metropolitan Police, who was deployed to Millbank when things kicked off: The Met got caught out. The powers-that-be didn't expect the numbers. You could feel something was brewing.

Thomas Barlow: I pushed my way to the front. There were a few people flinging placards at the windows, and I looked around and realised there were only five or six police there. There were already some people inside Millbank. I thought, 'Fuck it – let's go for it, man.' I turned to face the crowd and said, "Push me!" They pushed me like a spear towards the door. I got punched in the head by a few cops, but then we were inside! It was fucking quality. It was such a buzz.

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Andy: We got there just after the windows had gone in. It was close combat almost. We made a number of charges to distance the protesters, but it was hard to do anything – the students were ferocious. I kept getting hit on the head by plant pots.

Roger Gomm: I was accountable and responsible. It was my policing operation, and it hadn't gone very well. It wasn't my finest day.

Thomas Barlow: I'm in the lobby. I'm through. It's mayhem. I'm a bit dazed, so I'm just sitting in this plush sort of Swedish armchair, wearing black clothes with bits of ash all over me, and outside there's people shouting at cops and kicking the windows. I remember seeing the windows break and flares going off. It was fucking crazy.

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Photo: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

Belinda Edney, then a student at Nottingham Trent University: I got pushed into Millbank. It was surreal. The amount of people was ridiculous. I had no idea where I was. I ended up going up the stairs. When I got to the roof you could see all these people outside. It felt exciting, like something was going on and people were going to take notice.

Thomas Barlow: I start running up the stairs behind someone holding an anarchist flag. We got to one floor and this guy comes out and says, "I've just seen Baroness Warsi on the shitter." Someone else was carrying a bowl of fruit. I said, "Where have you got the fruit from?" He stole it from the Tory canteen. I thought, 'All these years of activism so you can steal a banana and see a Baroness on the shitter.'

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Andy: I always remember the protesters shouting, "You're next! Your pensions are next!" At the time, I thought, 'Shut up.' How true they were. We were next.

A protester, Edward Woollard, drops a fire extinguisher from the roof. It narrowly avoids hitting a group of police officers below.

Thomas Barlow: I saw it dropped. There was a big scream. He'd been waving it around, shooting gas out of the thing. I don't think he meant to drop it. It was heavy and slippery.

Roger Gomm: He could have killed someone. We arrested him. It's not in my nature to say this, but I did feel sorry for him. He got caught up in the excitement and didn't think.

Thomas Barlow: I ended up in the garage underneath Millbank. It was full of fancy cars. By this point, all these sixth formers had found their way into the garage. Those cars got absolutely fucking trashed. It was glorious. But by then I was exhausted. I got out of it.

Belinda Edney: I was coming down the stairs when I got stopped by police. I remember a policeman trying to barge this girl. He pushed her hard, but she didn't fall over. Then the police held a bunch of us in the lobby for a long time. Because I refused to accept a caution, I was taken to Charing Cross station. They didn't interview me until 2AM, and then released me on bail the following day.

Aaron Porter gives an interview with the BBC, denouncing the Millbank occupation.

Aaron Porter: My view was that if we wanted to stop the government, we needed public support. We'd lose public support if we were seen to be causing criminal damage. So I distanced the NUS from the Millbank protesters. That became a bit of a dividing line within the NUS.

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Vicki Baars, then NUS LGBT officer: I thought Aaron's words were disgraceful. Students felt thrown under the bus by him.

Jonathan Moses, then a history undergraduate at UCL: There was a clear sense after Millbank that something was being born. You felt a movement in the air. I'd been at UCL for years, and you'd get ten people turning up to a political meeting. After Millbank, hundreds would turn up. There was a huge shift in the atmosphere.

fuck tory scum

Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

The 24th of November, 2010. Protesters march from Trafalgar Square to Whitehall, amid a heavy police presence. At Whitehall, protesters are kettled by police.

Rory Evans, then a sixth-form student from Bristol: It was clear that the police had barricaded Whitehall and intended to kettle us from the very beginning. The government portrayed it like we were kettled because we were being violent. But they kettled everyone, and then it turned violent.

Shiv Malik, a journalist who reported on the protests for The Guardian: A kettle is incredibly depressing when you're caught up in it. It requires you to defeat yourself to get out. And a crowd of people kept in an open pen will eventually give up. It's awful watching a group of people disintegrate like that. The morale seeps out over the hours.

Roger Gomm: What other tactic is there? Can you imagine firing tear gas at Whitehall?

Chris Donaldson, then a police inspector for the Metropolitan police, who was deployed at Whitehall that day: If you let them go through the streets of London they'll get upset and smash things up. It was a containment strategy. Contain them and bore them to death until they want to go home. Then you contain the damage.

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Rory Evans: It was scary. People were pushing against police lines and the police were pushing back. Loads of people fell over on top of me. I remember being on the floor and, as more people piled on, the gap of sky I could see was getting smaller and smaller until there was no light anymore. There was so much pressure on my foot, and I thought, 'This is going to break my ankle.' And then my ankle went, crunch.

At UCL, between 200 to 300 students occupy the Jeremy Bentham room in protest.

Jonathan Moses: We sent one person in to hold the room and gathered everyone in the quad. The uni thought we were going to be having a demo, but we'd been planning the occupation. I gave a speech and then said, "Let's do a tour of campus!" Everyone started sprinting to the room. When we were in we had a vote on whether or not to occupy it. It was unanimous. Occupation it was.

At Whitehall, an abandoned police van becomes a focal point for protesters – and media coverage.

Rory Evans: There was this abandoned police van in the middle of Whitehall where everyone was being kettled, which looked old and crap. It got smashed up and broken into, and people were climbing on top of it with masks on. I always remember finding that suspect. It seemed really weird. Why would you leave a police van where people were going to be kettled? My gut feeling was that it had been planned.

Andy: Rumours were spread among police that the van had been left there tactically. I wouldn't rule it out. People were attracted to it like a honey pot. You could see them committing offences.

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The police van attacked by protesters. Photo: imagegallery2 / Alamy Stock Photo

The 9th of December, 2010. The day of the vote. Protesters are kettled in Parliament Square. There are confrontations between protesters and riot police, some on horseback.

Greg Mulholland: It was extraordinary. You could hear the noise of the protesters – the chanting, the whistles. There was an atmosphere in Westminster, because you knew there was going to be a rebellion.

Aaron Porter: I'd been meeting Lib Dem MPs individually for weeks. If they were going to break their promise, I wanted to see the whites of their eyes as they did it.

Greg Mulholland: There was huge pressure from government whips. This was in the early stages of the coalition, remember. But I think they'd realised by then that they couldn't change my mind, and were looking to target more persuadable people. There was tension between me and my colleagues. You're getting praise from constituents and unions, but your colleagues are making their displeasure clear by not speaking to you, because they think you're not doing what you should be doing.

Aaron Porter: We had a war room in Parliament where we were meeting Lib Dem MPs and trying to flip them. We knew it would be close, and at one stage we thought we might defeat the government. But four hours before the vote, we knew we weren't going to. I did Question Time that evening. I said that students will never forgive the Lib Dems and they should expect electoral wipeout. They got their just deserts.

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Meanwhile, protesters in Parliament Square are being kettled by police.

Jade French, then a student at Queen Mary, University of London: It felt we were being kettled all day. I was standing next to a pregnant woman, and the police wouldn't let her out to use the toilet. I remember thinking that was wrong. It was quite a panicky feeling – you couldn’t move, it was claustrophobic. Being told you're not allowed to leave, even though you really want to. It was demeaning. People were having to wee behind buildings. There were no toilets. It felt so unfair.

Word reaches protesters that the bill has passed. Violence breaks out.

Andy: I hadn't seen police horses charge since the May Day riots. Being in that line and hearing the clopping down the street, you did get nervous.

Thomas Barlow: I was there when the police charged. It was fucking scary. They’re horses. They’re huge.

Chris Donaldson: It got violent. They were throwing things at us.

Shiv Malik: It was brutalising. I got hit by a copper over the head with a baton. I didn't realise I was bleeding until my jumper was wet with blood.

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Photo: Janine Wiedel Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo

Andy: I saw a mounted rider get pulled off a horse. In all my years of public order policing, I've never seen that.

Chris Donaldson: I arrested the two people who pulled the police officer off his horse. The horse bolted through the crowd and had to be found later. We arrested both of them and put them in a van and took them away.

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Shiv Malik: It was an awful thing the British state did to students. They decided to go after unarmed students who were protesting for the right reasons. And they got crushed.

Protests break out across central London. A car carrying Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall is attacked.

Thomas Barlow: I broke away from the madness and went on a run. People were trying to set the Christmas tree near Parliament alight. I ended up in the West End. People were surrounding this car, shouting, "It's fucking Prince Charles and Camilla!" Charles wound down the window slightly to see what was going on, and people were shouting their heads off. He wound his window back up.

Protesters are forced onto Westminster Bridge, where they are kettled late into the night, in the freezing cold.

Shiv Malik: That night was horrific. I did the follow-up reporting. There were moments people nearly died, being crushed in the kettle on the bridge. You could hear people screaming. The cops were crushing them from both sides.

The 10th of December. The UCL occupation ends.

Jonathan Moses: We had a meeting and decided it was better to go out formally. It was sad. We had been living together, sleeping together, eating together, for weeks. All the lecturers and staff who had supported us lined the corridors and gave us an ovation as we marched out together. We did some chanting, and then we went to the pub.

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Photo: Alan Gallery / Alamy Stock Photo

THE AFTERMATH

Aaron Porter: I've gone over this so many times in my mind – what would have stopped fees going up? But I don't think anything could have stopped it. This was the first tricky thing the coalition had to do. If they'd have backed down on this, the coalition would have fallen.

Belinda Edney: I knew the court case wasn't going to go in my favour at all. The magistrate was so pro-Tory, it was ridiculous. [Edney was found guilty of aggravated trespass in 2011.]

Greg Mulholland: I think it was a tragedy for the Liberal movement. Since then, liberals haven't been able to play the role they need in our country. It's the reason we're in the mess we're in. If you look at how Brexit came to pass, you need to look back at the tuition fee vote. Had it never happened, had the Lib Dems never broken that pledge – and with it the inevitable shattering of trust there was in the party – we wouldn't have lost all those seats to the Conservatives in 2015, and there wouldn't have been a Brexit referendum.

Rory Evans: People my age have not forgotten what happened. The visceral anger we feel at the Lib Dems will never go away. We haven't moved on. The anger is still there. I voted Lib Dem in 2010, because of tuition fees. I will never vote Lib Dem again. The Lib Dems had the opportunity to convert me to a lifelong Lib Dem voter and they did the exact opposite.

Shiv Malik: The student protests were the first volley in that battle of populism that we have subsequently seen writ large. People came together to say, "We want something else. Stop pushing us into a future that is worse than our past."

Jonathan Moses: A lot of the people who went on to form the Momentum movement were students at the time. My friend Dan Hancock says that breaking the windows of Millbank was the first break for capitalist realism for our generation. Growing up under Blair, there was the sense that capitalism was here forever. The student protests threw that up in the air. The sense of what was possible was suddenly much less fixed.

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