Latest London Protests Not All About Students

Trashing London Over Tuition Fees Oli Scarff / Getty Images

They defaced a statue of Winston Churchill in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament, urinating on it and daubing anti-police graffiti. They smashed windows at the Supreme Court and the Treasury building, as well as at West End stores. They attempted to set fire to the giant Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square; they threw flares and smoke bombs in a running battle with police, who made 20 arrests.

But the protesters who rampaged through central London struck by chance on a target of still greater iconic significance. In a brief fracas, they attacked a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, to a theater in the heart of the West End. Recognizing the occupants, a mob of about 20 surrounded the Rolls-Royce, threw white paint, and pounded the vehicle with placards, bottles, and trash cans, chanting, “Off with their heads” and “Tory scum.”

So who were the culprits? Ostensibly, the demonstration, which attracted some 25,000 to Westminster, was called to protest government plans to hike university tuition fees, approved yesterday by Parliament after weeks of fierce public debate. But the language and the violence suggest a wider challenge to authority from anarchists and far-left groups looking to hijack the student cause.

Indeed, ahead of yesterday’s clashes police were warning of a resurgence of extremist groups that have little to do with student politics, flourishing long before the financial crisis or the fiscal crackdown imposed by the current Conservative-led coalition government. For some, yesterday’s scenes revived memories of the anticapitalist May Day riot in central London of 2000, when more than 90 people were arrested after a riot that included defacing the same Churchill statue.

The extremists’ role is bad news for the mainstream student bodies that are fighting to reverse the proposed tripling of maximum tuition fees, to $14,500 a year. The risk: that media images of vandalism and assaults on the police will taint the students’ campaign as well as the wider opposition to the government’s program of spending cuts.

The polling evidence seems clear. While voters broadly approve of the students’ cause, there’s no such backing for violence. Only 19 percent believe such action is ever acceptable in a democracy, and a huge majority deplored the attack on the Conservative Party headquarters that marked a student rally in London last month.

But the moderates may struggle to shake off the fringe groups, fired up by yesterday’s riot and the allegedly heavy-handed response of the authorities. The website of the Whitechapel Anarchist Group, based in London’s rundown East End, claimed today that “young people” have been “taught a valuable—if painful—lesson in whose side the state is on. This is still only the beginning.” The cold start to London’s winter may be about to turn hot.