Today marks the tenth anniversary of one of the most important demonstrations in British political history. The occupation of Millbank Tower – a nerve centre of the British establishment – gave birth to the 2010 student movement. An estimated 52,000 students and lecturers marched through central London to protest the new Coalition government’s promise to triple tuition fees and cut grants for working class students.
The demonstration on November 10th, 2010 did not go to plan for the National Union of Students (NUS) who organised it. Exiting the planned route after Parliament Square, thousands of young people spontaneously occupied the headquarters of the Conservative Party in Millbank Tower. Stuck inside the offices was Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative Party Chairman, along with much of the party staff. Forced to flee amidst the disorder, the Tory headquarters was sacked and protestors stormed the roof. As fires were lit and chants reverberated through the tower, a police helicopter transmitted live images to a Lambeth control room a quarter of a mile away where a superintendent, the “Gold Commander,” issued orders to an overwhelmed police force. A sign of the police response to come, fifty-four were arrested and ten injured.
The demonstration shocked the government, police, and much of the media. Before the 2010 movement took off, Poly Toynbee had told students that they were “low down in the pecking order” and that there were more important people in society to be worried about. The scale and physicality of the protest changed everything. The occupation of a ruling political party’s headquarters isn’t a normal occurrence in any society, let alone in a member country of the G8. Millbank was a premonition of the global wave of popular insurgency to follow in Egypt, Greece, Spain, and the United States. The Coalition government lost control of the media narrative; Millbank was a public display that there were many dissenters to austerity.
The spontaneous radicalism and willingness to break barriers of legality en masse fractured the myth that young people in Britain were ‘Thatcher’s Children.’ The pretence of respectable politics had been dropped and the spirit of direct action became increasingly normalised. New possibilities had been opened up. As Bob Crow, the late General Secretary of the RMT union, noted in a speech to the UCL occupation: ‘Only when suffragettes broke windows did the world take notice.’ Certain actions by protestors, like property damage, were more easily justified than others. The dropping of the fire extinguisher from the roof of Millbank by Edward Woollard was one of the defining events of the demonstration. NUS President Aaron Porter wrote a column in The Sun the next day condemning the occupation as ‘despicable.’
Despite this condemnation, a political generation was born. Standing outside Millbank Kieran Sutton, a college student from Westminster Kingsway, remembered in an interview in Student Revolt that ‘it’s the first time I had been on a protest and felt “This is my generation”.’ For Natalie Graham, also interview in Student Revolt,
Millbank was about collective power. I had never felt more empowered in my life. When you’re atomised and festering away in your room, thinking about things like climate change or capitalism, and suddenly you find yourself in a group of about four thousand people all as angry as you are, taking genuine action, it’s seriously empowering.
For those who were there, there was a feeling of powerful, surging release. Inside Millbank Tower youth from London, working-class and multi-ethnic, filmed music videos amid the disorder. The square mile where once only party officials, political journalists, and lobbying firms tussled for proximity to Westminster became a carnival of youthful rebellion. The late Mark Fisher wrote on his k-punk blog that Millbank and the movement which followed felt closest to ‘emerging from a state of deep depression. There’s the rush that you get… the occasional lurching anxieties, a sense of how precarious it all seems… and yet not only is it maintaining itself, it’s proliferating, intensifying, feeding on itself – it’s impossible, but it’s happening – the reality programme resetting itself.’
For those involved the demonstration was intimately related to upcoming rounds of austerity under the new government. The next day The Times front page announced that ‘with the Coalition government six months old today, ministers are watching for any sense that the disorder represents a change of mood, with demonstrators trying to emulate the violence that has swept France and Greece’. The government agreed that the significance of the protest lay well outside higher education. It called into question the whole agenda of austerity. One government source was quoted next day in the Guardian after the demonstration: ‘This is just the beginning. This is the first of a series of protests by various sections of society against what we are doing. The problem is this sets the benchmark for other protests. We’ve got the union demos coming down the line.’ The stakes were clear for the labour movement as well. Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey would write in the Guardian of how the ‘magnificent students’ movement urgently needs to find a wider echo if the government is to be stopped.’
The government’s systematic mobilisation of the full physical and legal power of the state was used to crush the student movement before it had a chance to spread. Though it was defeated by government intransigence and fierce state repression, the 2010 movement’s legacy lived on through its participants. Many took on important roles as trade unionists, climate activists, Palestine and Kurdish solidarity workers, disseminators of alternative media, organisers of migrant and refugee campaigns, and senior officials in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. The movement which Millbank kickstarted had many afterlives.
Some demonstrations become historical landmarks. Others take on mythic significance even for those who were not there. They become reference points to celebrate, to reject, or by which to measure historical change – but rarely to forget. Over the 2010 student movement and the following decade of youth political protagonism hangs the shadow of Millbank.