Clegg, struggling to check his anger, talked about difficult decisions. Harman then stuck the boot in with a sarcastic invitation to address those in the street outside. “I’m glad he thinks it’s so fair. Perhaps he’ll tell that to the students and lecturers marching on Westminster. In April he said increasing tuition fees to £7,000 a year would be a disaster. What word would he use to describe £9,000?”
It was not until well after 2pm that everything changed. The march had reached Tory headquarters at Millbank, further down the river from parliament. A large fire had been lit outside. Windows were being smashed. By late afternoon students were pouring into the building and onto the roof. The mood was ugly and the police were struggling to cope. One student wrapped a scarf around his face and pushed past a policeman into Millbank tower. He was punched twice in the face, breaking his glasses, and once in the stomach. But to him it was worth it. “We were inside Tory HQ,” he said laughing, as he recalled the moment of occupation. “Home of the classic enemy of the people.”
The student is an anarchist and has been protesting for 10 years. He rejects the idea that the attack was pre-planned. “I saw 10 or 15 anarchists – but the vast majority were students.” The violence was, he maintained, largely the result of spontaneous, combustible anger.
Inside the Commons, MPs rushed to occupy the moral high ground. The angry words of Baroness Warsi were echoed by Labour. Even the president of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, condemned the scenes.
Four days on, however, the politicians and those urging moderation have not won the day. The students – while regretting much of what went on at Millbank – have not been shamed into submission. Some leftwing Labour MPs, like McDonnell, have praised them and called for wider action from other groups affected by cuts.
Some union leaders are stepping up plans for co-ordinated protests across the public sector. But the big question is to what extent the students’ march represented the beginning of a far bigger protest against government austerity – and, equally, against politicians who told voters one thing before the election and then did another afterwards.
One former student who was inside Tory headquarters was Thomas Barlow, 27, now a club promoter in Manchester. He believes that without some aggression the protests will achieve nothing. “We know from Stop the War and the march on top-up fees that walking from A to B doesn’t get you anywhere. It might have made the front page of the Independent but that would be it. Instead we’ve all been getting messages of support from France, Australia, New Zealand and America.”
Barlow argues that any violence on Wednesday was within reasonable limits: property was damaged but people were not injured. “I don’t think any social movement in history has ever made change without damage to property. All great movements have had leaders who were accused of being terrorists or violent: from Emmeline Pankhurst to Nelson Mandela.”
A spokesman for the University and College Union (UCU), which jointly organised the march, said that while it made headlines they were the wrong ones. “Wednesday’s demo ensured that the issue of education cuts was back on the agenda. That much was clear as the debate raged during prime minister’s questions,” he said. “But the events at Millbank tower changed the focus . We need to take people with us and get back to what 50,000 people marched for.”
One senior source inside the NUS said he remained “genuinely unsure” of whether the action had helped or hindered the cause. The union’s president, Porter, was clear. “It has been disappointing that I have to spend time rightly condemning the violent perpetrators when what I want to concentrate on are the cuts to education and the proposed trebling of tuition fees.”
Within the wider union movement, there is also division. The issue of strikes and co-ordinated action has split the leading candidates in the election to become general secretary of Unite, the result of which will be announced next week. Whoever wins the post – arguably the most powerful in the history of UK trade unionism, following the merger of the Transport and General Workers Union and Amicus – will have a key role in determining how the entire union movement responds.