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UK Politics

The new politics: Student riot marks end of Coalition's era of consensus

Tory HQ wrecked in worst street violence since 1990 poll tax riots

Student demonstrators brought violence to London's streets yesterday on a scale not seen since the poll tax riots of 20 years ago. The ferocity of the protest ended the high hopes of a new era of consensus politics, promised by David Cameron when he took office exactly six months ago.

It is expected to be the first of many angry demonstrations as the impact of the Government's cuts is felt. More than 50,000 people brought Westminster to a standstill with a peaceful march past Parliament to protest against the proposal to increase tuition fees to up to £9,000 a year.

But the demonstration turned nasty when a crowd smashed its way into the Conservative Party's headquarters in Millbank, cheered on by hundreds more outside. Terrified Tory staff barricaded themselves in their offices as demonstrators roamed the building. Those trapped inside included Baroness Warsi, the party's chairman, who kept in telephone contact with the police outside as furniture was thrown through windows, the interior was trashed and a ceiling was pulled down. A fire extinguisher was thrown off the roof at police in the crowded courtyard below.

Slogans such as "Tory scum", and others more obscene, were scrawled across walls in paint and marker pen. Lights were ripped down and placards were burnt. Water fire-extinguishers were also let off from the roof and eggs thrown. Eight people, including three police officers, were taken to hospital.

Police were clearly unprepared for the planned attack. Riot officers were outnumbered, with 30 desperately trying to hold their line and protect the Millbank building beneath a steady bombardment. Reinforcement attempts were made as darkness fell, but the officers were driven back by protesters.

Four hundred students crowded the building's entrance as the night set in. Police were met with a hail of poles – some of which had been set alight – and cries of "shame on you" and "scum". Others continued to protest inside the building behind a police cordon.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson admitted afterwards: "It's not acceptable. It's an embarrassment for London and for us."

The perpetrators were very young, surprisingly well-mannered and rather middle-class. Some of those hurling insults or wooden placard polls at riot police were 15 and 16-years-olds who had bunked off school and now stand a chance of getting a criminal record before they reach university. The early arrest count stood at 35 and rising.

Until yesterday, the British reaction to the proposed cuts has been remarkably mild compared with mass protests in France, Greece and other countries.

Some of the protesters blamed the confrontation on police. Oscar, 18, a sixth-form politics student, claimed: "It was disgusting, man. They got their batons out and were knocking people to the floor. A girl was hit on the head. It's just made people more angry."

The previously peaceful demonstration had earlier disrupted Prime Minister's Questions, with an estimated 52,000 protesters cramming into Whitehall. Their chanting rang around the Palace of Westminster as Nick Clegg tried to defend the Coalition's cuts.

With no suspicion of the violence that was soon to break out, Labour MPs lined up to taunt Mr Clegg about the pledge that all 57 Liberal Democrat MPs signed before the election, promising to oppose any increase in tuition fees. Harriet Harman, deputising for the Labour leader Ed Miliband, roused jeering laughter when she asked: "In April this year, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it was his aim to end university tuition fees. Can he update the House on how his plan is progressing?"

Mr Clegg replied: "I have been entirely open about the fact that we have not been able to deliver the policy that we held in opposition." The violence was condemned by the official organisers of yesterday's march. Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, accused a "small minority" of having "hijacked" the event and described the violence as "despicable".

Students involved in the siege defended their action, claiming that a peaceful march would have been ignored. One very well-spoken 16-year-old from

Worcestershire, named Alex, had been up on the roof and was wearing his scarf across his face in a rather feeble attempt to hide his identity. He thought the violence was justified "as long as no one gets hurt". "This is fucking amazing," he said. "You should go up on the roof. It's chaos up there: they've graffitied all over the walls." He added: "I want to study journalism when I finish school, if I can afford it. People are really pissed off."

Andrew Speake, a 23-year-old Chinese studies student in Manchester, described what he saw as "a necessary evil", although he added: "The best way is not violence, it's debate and argument."

Simran Hans, a first-year English literature student from Manchester, said: "Education should be free: a rise in fees will deny people a universal right. I don't know if my family would be able to support me if the fees were more. Everyone who is in politics now benefited from free education."

The rioters, reputedly organised by a revolutionary group from Leeds, released a statement saying: "We are occupying the roof in opposition to the marketisation of education pushed through by the Coalition Government, and the system they are pushing through of helping the rich and attacking the poor. We call for direct action to oppose these cuts. This is only the beginning of the resistance."

Yesterday's demonstration was the biggest by students since the mid-1980s when they protested against an attempt to bring in tuition fees by Margaret Thatcher's government, but that protest ended peacefully. In the Thatcher years, there was an outbreak of inner-city rioting in 1981, but that was not linked to any organised political protest. There was political violence on the picket line during the miners' strike, and a protest against the poll tax in 1990 turned into a riot. But more recent demonstrations, such as against the Iraq war in 2003, passed off peacefully.

Collateral damage

The Conservatives were far from the only people who suffered the ire of angry students at yesterday's protests at the Millbank complex. The 30-floor tower on the north side of the Thames is also home to a number of government agencies, including the Environment Agency, the Audit Commission and the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Hundreds of workers had to be evacuated.

Conservative HQ moved to Millbank in 2007 from their more famous home at 32 Smith Square, via a short stint in airy offices on Victoria Street. The current Tory Party chairman Baroness Warsi also has an office there. As it is only a five-minute walk from the Palace of Westminster, past the TV studios of BBC, Sky and ITN, it is within the "division bell area" – MPs can make it back in time to vote when the division is called.

Ten years ago, the ground floor of the tower was where Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson created the New Labour spin machine so crucial to its electoral success. They, like previous occupants, including the United Nations, moved out shortly afterwards after complaining about the building's astronomical rents.