Wednesday 10 November 2010. 13.57. The day of the infamous tuition fees protest.
An email pings into my inbox from my former press office colleague, Donald Campbell:
Going by the News Channel, the students are going a bit Lord of the Flies. Hope you’ve got some coppers out front – or are they burning their placards because they’ve changed their minds, having seen Nick at PMQs?
Simon Waddington, Lib Dem HQ’s head of operations, replies:
The situation has got so bad we’ve lowered the blinds.
The protest brought tens of thousands of angry students – propped up by hundreds of angry union members and anarchists who were clearly not actual students – to Westminster. They started at the top of Whitehall by Trafalgar Square, marching westwards towards Parliament chanting ‘Clegg, Clegg, shame on you, shame on you for turning blue’. When they reached the Cabinet Office, a few of them stopped to burn the boss in effigy, lifting their flaming Cleggs high above their heads to the cheers of the great unwashed. They continued to march westwards, past the Houses of Parliament, past the broadcasters ensconced in 4 Millbank, past – mystifyingly – the turning on to Great Peter Street that would have led them, in fewer than 100 paces, to the front door of 4 Cowley Street, the party’s five-storey rabbit warren HQ, sat in a quiet, terraced cul-de-sac, and the windows of our ground floor press office. Instead they continued to march down the banks of the Thames to Millbank Tower, home to Conservative Headquarters, where they proceeded to smash windows, set things on fire, infiltrate the building, climb up on to the roof and lob fire extinguishers from it. All of which we watched on the rolling news channels on the wall-mounted TVs in the press office with a mixture of fascination and terror.
Going into government was a hell of an adjustment for Cowley Street staffers like me who joined a party that had been out of office for 70 years with no expectation that we would be bucking that trend now. Becoming full-blown hate figures, savaged in newspapers, mocked on late night comedy panel shows and, now, raged against by the angry mob, felt like an out of body experience. We were supposed to be the nice guys.
We didn’t really know what to do. We didn’t have any police protection. We sat nervously in our office with the blinds down. Our private security amounted to the mild-mannered Simon Waddington, not one of life’s intimidating physical presences, and our camp but strong-willed Irish receptionist Robert. If the hordes had discovered us, which, given they all had smart phones and our address was anything but a secret, I’m amazed that they didn’t, we’d have been over-run. They could have barged their way through the front door, smashed the windows, nicked the computers, trashed the offices and occupied the building and there’s not a damn thing we could have done about it. Instead they went to the Tory HQ, further away, in a tower block, and started trashing stuff that didn’t even belong to the Conservatives.
At around midday, I was peckish. We’d been holed up in the office all day. There were no protestors outside. So, I thought ‘sod it, I’m getting lunch’. I slipped out into the sunshine and found my way to the Tesco a couple of hundred yards further up Great Peter Street. I queued for my meal deal behind half a dozen teenagers who had clearly come down for the protest but found themselves a little peckish. They were very civilised and clearly having an extremely pleasant day out. One of them was buying sushi. Another had a placard that read ‘Down with this sort of thing’*.
I mooched back towards the office and paused at the corner of Great Peter Street and Cowley Street to finish my cigarette. It appeared that we had been found. An advanced guard of half a dozen protestors, twenty-something men and women, some with dreadlocks, were trying to force their way into the building. They had got through the heavy wooden front door and were stuck in the small antechamber between it and reception. Half in and half out of the front door was a bicycle with attached trailer, on which was a past-its-best sound system blasting out some mild trip-hoppy drum and bass music. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant. I joined them in the foyer, wearing my grey suit and carrying my plastic Tesco bag. “Excuse me,” I said politely as I Englished my way past them to the double doors that were being held firmly in place by Simon. The protestors weren’t actually doing anything. They weren’t trying to barge the door or anything. They were just hanging around in our foyer, a bit stoned, listening to drum and bass. Simon opened the door for me and I squeezed through. He shut it firmly and continued to eye the protestors with a mixture of suspicion and amusement through the window in the door.
A few frantic calls to the Home Office later and the police did in fact turn up. They cordoned off the cul-de-sac and kept guard throughout the remainder of the afternoon. Eventually, when they were done trashing Millbank Tower, a few hundred protestors did locate Cowley Street on their way back to the tube station, so we had a relatively small and entirely polite protest outside for a few hours until it got dark and the temperature dropped, at which point everyone went home.
*I didn’t realise at the time that this was actually a Father Ted reference.
My good friend Louise Phillips has just reminded me that the fine men and women of the parliamentary press lobby were particularly considerate on this day. Many of them tweeted their puzzlement as to why the students hadn’t trashed Cowley Street, while also helpfully including the full address. Subtle guys. Subtle.