LIB DEMS: A funny business going on in Stalag Sheffield

Liberal Democrats' Spring Conference 2011 in Sheffield.
Liberal Democrats' Spring Conference 2011 in Sheffield.
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THE ‘All Businesses Open As Usual’ sign is blocked from view by half a dozen yellow-jacketed policemen, writes Features Editor Martin Smith.

Clearly this is far from business as usual.

Sheffield doesn’t normally have 1,000 policemen from three different forces on the streets.

It doesn’t have the 8ft Stalag Sheffield steel and concrete fence around the City Hall and it doesn’t usually have deserted department stores on a Friday afternoon.

The Liberal Democrat Spring Conference started last night and leader Nick Clegg walked in unnoticed by anyone just before 4.30pm, blue suit, head held high and flanked by security.

Most of the protesters were still gathering and missed their chance to let him know, close-up, how they felt.

A few minutes later the crowd shuffles up from Barkers Pool to the Stalag Sheffield barriers at funeral cortege pace.

Waiting for them on the front line the Derbyshire police lads are coming to the end of their shift and getting a bit peckish.

One, who looks like he knows his way round a decent dinner, is studying his iphone.

“I’ve just had an update from Yates’s. Fish and chips are four quid and there’s one just round the corner. That’ll do me.”

At least someone is spending, and earning, some money.

Back in the thin of it there are the pierced and the punks, the mums, the anarchists and the greybeards in walking gear. All want to be there to make their point.

A masked 18-year-old socialist - not anarchist, though the anarchist standing next to him is his friend - waves his red and black flag.

Why is your face covered?

“I have my face covered because it makes more of an impression,” says the lad calmly.

“I do not want people to know who I am but I do not want to threaten anyone. I don’t like violence. I’m a very nice person.

“But we are serious and will do what we need to to make our point.”

So not that nice then.

“Sometimes damage to property is justified because it is some of those companies that got us in this that the crisis is bad enough to warrant all these Government cuts,” he says, barely rescuing his rhetoric from a schoolboy own-goal.

Behind Spar on Division Street two officers in thermal suits sip hot drinks from Greggs cups, a snarl of police dogs suddenly bark madly from within Stalag Sheffield.

A couple of council workers walk past carrying bins and brushes: “I’ve told ‘em, I don’t care if Rod Stewart’s on at the City Hall I’m not working Sunday night,“ says one.

“You do right,” says his mate.

Away from the gathering confrontation in an almost deserted John Lewis, a lady tries on yet another wedding hat.

From the look on her face this is the one.

Beyond the mirror she’s looking in, two dozen police officers in their yellow jackets march through Stalag Sheffield to reinforce the front line.

But it will take more than a few anarchists, Nick Clegg and 1,000 policeman to take away that new-hat smile.

It may not be exactly business as usual but life goes on.

Nick Clegg or no Nick Clegg.