The scenes outside Conservative Party headquarters in central London yesterday looked in many respects like history revisited. The placards, the chanting, the burnings, the smashed windows, the attempted invasion came as vivid reminders of a time when student protests regularly immobilised city centres and demonstrating was part of the student experience. The question must be, however, whether yesterday's furious response to the planned rise in university tuition fees was a one-off excursion into the past, or the prelude to future unrest.
Until now, the public mood has seemed remarkably quiescent. Where discontent has broken out on the streets or given rise to strikes, this has generally been the result of disputes that pre-dated, or were not directly related to, the Coalition's cuts. The firefighters are contesting roster changes that alter outdated and expensive working practices. They rightly gauged that their threatened strike on Bonfire Night would lose them support, and called it off. London Underground workers have staged day-long strikes. But this remains a dispute over staffing, not a protest against central government cuts.
Yesterday's demonstration by students and lecturers can be read in two ways. Its genesis is the Government's acceptance of most of the recommendations of Lord Browne's report on university funding, and the likelihood that tuition fees will rise to £9,000 a year. The prospect of such a swingeing increase was bound to draw ire, even if it is – as this newspaper has long argued – the only way in which decent financial support for higher education can be secured, and there are safeguards for graduates who remain low-paid.
Whether or not the violence yesterday was, as the National Union of Students insisted, fomented by a tiny minority, the fury on display also seemed to contain other strands, such as a sense of "them and us", and the conviction that direct action was the only way to convey the desired message to those in power. If such sentiments come to be shared more widely, this may turn out to be no unseasonal squall, but the first storm in a new winter of discontent.