A Riot of Their Own: Fighting Cuts in Britain

A Riot of Their Own: Fighting Cuts in Britain

A Riot of Their Own: Fighting Cuts in Britain

The British government’s planned education spending cuts sparked a demonstration on Wednesday, when tens of thousands took to the streets and a handful of militants broke the windows on the ground floor of Millbank Tower, home of the Conservatives.


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. 

Luke Sandford, from the University of York, believed a very specific set of protesters were responsible, “a small group who drew the crowd’s attention to the fairly anonymous office building who appeared not to be students. A group of young anarchists started hitting the building with placard sticks and egging the upper windows. I think they were genuinely surprised when the windows cracked, and a large crowd formed to watch.”

Michael Appleton was working inside the building when placards began burning and protesters took control of the ground floor. “The news suggested that protesters were entering the building, so it was decided that we would lock ourselves in the office,” he said. “The police then made an announcement in the building telling us to head to the loading bay, where a police escort would be waiting to escort us out. We left the building, and the protest went on. When I returned a little while later, riot police were backing up the police that were already there, and [it] looked like a small war had taken place.”

These accounts give some indication of the context of that widely reproduced photo of a demonstrator kicking out a window at Millbank Tower. But Joanna, Luke and Michael still support the protests. “The violence was shocking, but raising fees by £6,000 is still wrong,” Michael told me, in a spirit of generosity toward the mass of people who did not set out to destroy his office.

Luke had practical economic considerations in mind, condemning what he sees as the ideological rather than budgetary considerations of the Conservative government. “An educated workforce is vital for the future economic strength of the UK, and these cuts could put that in jeopardy. These changes to funding are not about cutting the deficit—it will be four years before the Treasury sees a return in repayments. Before then it will have to pay in the form of loans to students. It doesn’t offer any short-term financial gain for the government and puts the long-term structure of the education system at risk." 

Joanna went as a former supporter of Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader seen as a hypocrite by many in and outside of his party because his election platform included the abolition of tuition for students. Clegg formed a coalition with the Conservatives after the election in May, and now serves as deputy prime minister. “I went because I felt that enough is enough and needed to show my anger, my sense of betrayal when it comes to Nick Clegg and the system as a whole, to let the government and the rest of the UK know that it’s not acceptable, and it will not be tolerated,” she said. Joanna feels betrayed by the endless assurances of successive governments that students will not carry the burden of tuition. “They have broken so many promises to the nation, and failed us in so many ways over the past few years, and this is the final straw.”

Joanna and another student activist from the University of York, David Clarke, hinted at broader solidarity with Britain’s nearest neighbor on the continent. Students in France joined millions of others in the last few weeks to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reforms, and the élan of the demonstrations has clearly left an impression on the habitually more conservative British. “Paris was used when debates started up about the violence,” Joanna said. “When we hear about students rioting in Paris we’re impressed, because we expect it from them… Some say that is precisely why it’s needed. We’ve been pushed this far because all other outcry has clearly been ignored." 

A model for more effective change based on mainland Europe’s style of protest appealed to David, who told me, “A lot of people have spoken subsequently about the comparison with Greece and France. I think there’s much less anti-establishment feeling here but also a realization that in those countries, large-scale demonstrations get a great deal of attention—and results.”

A takeover of Manchester University’s finance building by seventy students came twenty-four hours later, with a nod to friends in London. “Everything that happened yesterday had a really great effect on public knowledge of how students feel about the cuts, and we don’t want that to die down,” said Robyn Forsythe, one of the protest’s organizers. Students in Manchester want to know why staff are being pushed into voluntary redundancy at a moment when their vice-chancellor [president equivalent] is paid at what they claim is twenty times the average level.

Beyond undergraduates, a wider social movement is gaining in strength. Its members include high school students, unionists and unemployed graduates who feel their education hasn’t given them any privilege in the recessionary marketplace. 

The EMA, or Educational Maintenance Allowance, gave disadvantaged children an incentive to stay in school beyond the current compulsory age of 16. Recipient families often factored the EMA into their weekly budgets, but the government’s most recent round of cuts includes the scrapping of the grant, making the commitment of even a high school equivalent education difficult for some teenagers to afford.

Maura, 16, attends a sixth-form college in County Durham, in the north of England. She will soon feel the pinch. “I receive £20 a week EMA, and it pays for my school transport and lunches,” she told me. “My family are not in a position to make this up if I lose it, so this is potentially catastrophic for us. I can’t go to school if I have no food or transport. There are similar stories in my year group, with a few people saying that they only go to sixth Form because of EMA.… Lots of us are being hit and are beginning to wonder why the Tories appear to be picking on our generation.”

Maura wants to study languages or politics, but is now unsure how she will be able to afford the living costs of university, which are covered by government loans that often account for half of current student debt. 

The National Union of Students and the University and College Union were responsible for organizing the London protest. The UCU represents teaching staff in British higher education. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, told demonstrators, “Some in our government seem to think they can spin their way out of their election commitments. So far they’ve called the increase in the cost of university everything but what it is. They’ve called it a fee, a tax, a loan and now a contribution. But the simple truth is it’s not any of those things. It’s a debt.”

Clarke voiced his support for the union line, adding that on his campus the focus is largely on Liberal Democrat MPs who pledged to vote against any rise in fees. “We’re going to hold them to account, and there will be lots of local action in their constituencies. But I also expect more direct action on university campuses, such as occupations, sit-ins and strikes,” he said. Some Liberal Democrat MPs are known to be unhappy with their party’s forced change of direction as part of the coalition, and the government could lose future votes on cuts without the support of their partners in Parliament. A broad union-student-teacher-rebel Liberal Democrat coalition would hold considerable political clout, especially if this coalition could persuade the Labour Party to offer more than symbolic support.

Liz Chinchen, a spokesperson for the unions’ umbrella organization, the Trades Union Congress, told me that she had been galvanized by the London events, and that all the unions represented by the TUC, the equivalent of the AFL-CIO, are planning to unite for a mass rally in March. She believes that when the middle classes start being affected by the cuts there will be swift movement by the government to placate them, just as Thatcher was forced to abandon the poll tax in part by the “blue rinse brigade” of senior citizens. But Chinchen also sees a future of omnipresent cuts. “This is impacting across all the parts of the UK. The bankers might not feel the pinch, but ordinary people are certainly going to.… We don’t have to take an ax to public spending; let’s wait until growth is happening." 

The TUC is planning a public awareness campaign in the run-up to the rally in March, as teenagers and students continue their protests on campus and around the country. The ideal of one of the most popular signs of the protest seems to have taken serious hold: “Education is a right, not a privilege.” 

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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