Jan 10, 2011
On December 9th, the British House of Commons voted to triple the cost of university education. This vote ignored four weeks of angry student protests, involving both high school and college youth. Even with these higher proposed costs, British university students would be paying roughly what U.S. students pay for community colleges. The following article comes from Workers Fight, a monthly paper edited by militants of the group of that name active in Britain.
The parliamentary vote didn’t go smoothly, since it led to the resignation of two Liberal Democratic Party members from the administration and reduced the majority of the coalition in power. More than half the Liberal Democratic members of parliament refused to vote for the measure, including the party’s president and vice president. Up to this time, the Liberal Democrats had always made free education a main campaign theme. And even a few Conservative Party members voted no or abstained.
But these “rebels” knew they didn’t take any risk in this vote, and above all they weren’t inflicting a defeat on the administration, which in the current context would have had very embarrassing consequences for its austerity policy.
As parliament debated, thousands of young high school and university students demonstrated in the surrounding area. The heavily armed police forces were in an awkward position when confronted by moving groups of young people. The students took over the Ministry of Finance building and occupied the Cenotaph, an official monument to the butcheries of World Wars I and II.
Mobile and fragmented groups of youth criss-crossed a vast part of the center of London. The skirmishes and sometimes the confrontations were repeated from noon to almost midnight.
The demonstrators remembered that street actions in 1990 defeated the attempt of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to impose a poll tax. They knew they could challenge a vote of parliament. So they continued to protest.
But newspaper accounts played down the importance of the youth mobilization and ignored police brutality. The press published the photos of 14 youths the police “sought for questioning,” implying their guilt without a trial. And the front pages featured the alarmed faces of Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, on their way to a concert in a Rolls Royce in the area where the demonstrations were taking place. But of course, these useless royals got through without a scratch.
Then videos from eye-witnesses began to circulate on the Internet. In one, as an ambulance driver led a high school student, victim of a cerebral hemorrhage, to a hospital emergency room, he was told the area was “reserved for the police.” In another video, a paraplegic demonstrator was pulled from his wheelchair by four cops, hit several times by a club and finally dragged on the ground by his shoulders. This testimony spread over the Internet so widely that the BBC, ordinarily adept at a total black out of what might embarrass people in high places, couldn’t avoid rebroadcasting it.
A demonstration four days later, consisting mainly of high school students, took place in central London, with police barely present. The government, knowing it was in a delicate position, chose to maintain a low profile, waiting for the school holidays to calm things down. But that didn’t stop the administration from announcing that water cannons would be used against future demonstrators. Up to now these weapons have been used only in Northern Ireland, where they caused many injuries.
If the protest movement resumes in January, which we can only wish for, the youth are thus forewarned. They face a government that can’t truly retreat without risking the questioning of its entire austerity policy.
The youth must find the forces, above all, allies in the rest of the population, in particular workers, who are the target of the same government’s direct attack.