Before we take the New York Times and the vast majority of the British media at face value, it would be useful to consider why 52,000 people collectively decided to march against the British government’s spending cuts in education last Wednesday.
It must be understood that this is not normal. To give that number context, when I attended a similar march in my first year as an undergraduate in 2006, just 3,500 people showed up to protest against the Labour government’s tuition fees hike; 12,500 had been optimistically expected. Of the people who did attend, many of my student comrades simply wanted a cheap day out in London, and disappeared after half an hour’s hard chanting and flag-waving.
Broadly speaking, that is how protest, especially student protest, has been conducted in the years since the 1990 riots against Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax, with the exception of the million plus who marched against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The November 10 demonstration was an altogether different beast, a protest that galvanized teenagers and teachers, lecturers and graduates, students and professors. At its very heart it signaled a sea change in public reaction to Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne’s recent austerity measures; what is causing outrage is the attack on the poor, young and vulnerable in the unprecedented cuts laid down in the Comprehensive Spending Review. College students are the main constituency affected by the education cuts, but young people and those working in the education sector are similarly angry at the government’s targeting of their livelihoods. Outside union involvement is also beginning.
The Browne review, the government-commissioned assessment of the “sustainable future for higher education,” recently recommended that the “cap,” or the maximum possible tuition fee, be eliminated. These currently vary little by institution (a degree at Cambridge costs the same as a degree at Leeds). An increased levy to the government would be a precondition of any university charging over £6,000 a year, but a source at a top-ten institution told me that elite universities will almost certainly try to charge £9,000, equivalent to around $13,500. In addition to this, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition also plans to cut £2.9 billion, or 40 percent, from the higher education teaching budget.
It was these announcements that sparked the demonstration on Wednesday, an event that saw tens of thousands peacefully take to the streets and a handful of militants break the windows on the ground floor of Millbank Tower, home of the Conservatives. Battles with police in riot gear ensued as onlookers threw items as varied as leeks, fire extinguishers and shards of glass into the furor taking place at the Tories’ headquarters.
Joanna Thompson, a student from Edinburgh, told me she believed that police had aggravated some of the crowd before they stormed the building. “I spoke to a girl who really seemed to be in shock and had been hit in the head quite severely. They [the police] also lashed out at a guy in a wheelchair, which received a lot of anger from the crowd. This group then joined the rest of the crowd heading to Tory HQ. Here, and I am taking the vandalism into account, most of the violence seemed to be the result of a small group of opportunists—anarchists, students and kids—up for a fight.