As thousands of students marched on the streets of Westminster, heated exchanges about hiked tuition fees and education cuts were also taking place within the House of Commons.
During Prime Minister’s Questions, Nick Clegg’s U-turn in his policy on tuition fees came under fire from Harriet Harman.
The Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was met with applause and laughter when she said, “During the election [Mr Clegg] promised to abolish tuition fees. Can he update the House on how it’s going?”
When Mr Clegg told Ms Harman that there was a “consensus” across the parties about the need to reform university funding, Ms Harman hit back, saying, “None of us agree with tuition fees of £9,000 a year.”
She suggested Mr Clegg had been “led astray” by the Conservatives, who had plans “to shove the cost of higher education on to students and their families”.
But Mr Clegg said the government had come up with a “fair and progressive solution to a very difficult problem”. He said the Lib Dems had to change policy because of the financial situation and compromises made in the coalition agreement.
Mr Clegg added, “This is an extraordinarily difficult issue and I have been entirely open about the fact that we have not been able to deliver the policy that we held in opposition.”
The Lib Dems had made a pledge before the general election that they would not raise tuition fees and would fight all attempts to increase them. However, since entering government as the coalition partner of the Conservative party, leading members of the Lib Dems now support the proposed fee rises.
Much of the student anger at the London demonstration was directed towards Nick Clegg. As well as storming the Conservative headquarters, hundreds of students swarmed outside the Lib Dem offices.
Crowds gathered around a large fire, as students sung “Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the Tories on the top; Put the Lib Dems in the middle, and we’ll burn the f***ing lot”. Throughout the London protests students chanted, “Nick Clegg shame on you, shame on you for turning blue.”
Many protesters expressed their frustration and disillusionment with the democratic process after the Lib Dems’ policy changes regarding higher education.
Kate Halls, a fourth year Arabic and Hebrew student at Wadham, said, “We know that politely filing past Parliament to ask for favours will get us nowhere: the only way to achieve change is to make for the locus of power and start taking it apart. Only thus will we convince the hypocrites and thieves running our country that we are a force to be reckoned with.”
Patrick Fleming, a second year Oxford PPEist, said, “The claim that yesterday’s protest was spoilt by the scenes at Millbank is premised upon a naive trust in the workings of democracy. There is no channel for genuine debate of ideas, no prospect for government to listen its electorate, and crucially, no accountability between (or even at) elections.
“The violence was a rational expression of rage from citizens who have been tricked, ignored and sidelined time and again. There is no other channel which grants us the opportunity to express the extent of our frustration and alienation. We had to fight, and so we fought.”