London | Austerity Britain

A half-million take to the streets to protest government cuts

A woman outside the Parliament in London on 26 March during the largest demonstration the UK has seen in nearly a decade. PETER MACDIARMID / GETTY IMAGES
01 May, 2011

AMONG MANY CUTS FORCED by the imminent loss of government funding, the BBC World Service discontinued the weekly programme Politics UK on 25 March. It was, in fairness, a grey, fusty show whose presenters turned over the mundane and the less mundane in British politics with gravelly equanimity. Listeners around the world will have to make do with bite-sized bits of British news, but one doubts that the programme's disappearance is much mourned in Lagos or Lucknow. The sceptred isle is now well and truly an isle, its sceptre (despite the monstrous pomp of the royal nuptials) not nearly as weighty as it once was. In an age of economising, the World Service can no longer afford the luxurious 30 minutes once allotted to parochial discussions of alternative voting reform, child tax credits, incapacity benefits and the other issues that periodically ruffle Britain's political class.

There is a clear symbolic shift in the suspension of the programme, over and beyond the exigencies of BBC bean-counters. If the World Service—the very institution meant to project Britain to the world—deems Politics UK expendable, it suggests a recognition that the UK has diminished in the eyes (and ears) of a global audience. Even executives at the BBC believe that the internal concerns of Britain are of tepid interest to those beyond its shores.

Yet it is striking that just as British politics continue to slide from view, events within the country are bringing it in line with upheaval and tumult elsewhere. On 26 March (a day after Politics UK crackled to a quiet end), the UK saw its largest demonstration in nearly a decade. In a march organised by the country's leading unions, an estimated 500,000 people took to the streets of London to protest the severe cuts planned by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

I was with the motley horde of students, workers, artisans, parents and babies that day, though I marched (or shuffled, such was the density of the crowd) through central London more out of sociological interest than conviction. By the standards of contemporary global dissent, it was a sedate, tidy affair. But media attention invariably focused on the actions on London high streets by small groups of anarchists and activists peripheral to the march (deeds that included plopping a massive replica of a Trojan horse on the middle of Oxford Circus, a vivid, albeit ambiguous, symbolic act).

The day marked an important moment in the defence of the British public sector, marrying the defiance of the union struggle in Wisconsin in the United States to the youthful exuberance of the Arab Spring. It also fit into a wider debate about the fate of Europe's postwar "social democratic settlement". Similar unrest has rocked countries across the recession-hit continent, including Greece (still the scene of protests, a year after riots ground the country to a halt); France (riots and student demonstrations in 2010); and Portugal, where a combination of left agitation and centre-right chicanery forced the resignation of the socialist prime minister in March. These conflicts cannot be understood simply as the friction between forces of the left and the right in European politics, since traditionally left-wing parties are often the ones in the awkward position of forcing "austerity" on their populations. At stake, in the view of many protesters, is the very identity of the European welfare state, with its delicate balance of rights and certainties, on the one hand, and market logic, on the other.

In Britain, which has left itself far more open to international market forces than much of the rest of the European Union, the battle lines are being drawn. Prime Minister David Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, claim the cuts are necessary. They seek to trim the deficit of £150 billion and the national debt of over £1 trillion that was inherited from the former Labour government in 2010, in the wake of the deeply divisive "bailout" of Britain's faltering banks. Cameron's opponents condemn the cuts as "ideological", as thrusting at the jugular of British social democracy.

The government's policy leaves largely unscathed the banks and financial institutions that many Britons blame for plunging the country into an economic crisis. Instead, proposed cuts attack the edifice and foundations of the welfare state. They target the huge public sector (approximately one-sixth of the work force), promising reductions and a drastic shakeup in the National Health Service; slashing funding to transport, education, housing and other civic infrastructure; eliminating numerous programmes for the poor; raising university fees (the spark that inflamed furious student protests last year and set in motion the broader protests this March); scaling down environmental programmes; closing libraries; privatising post offices; and axing funding for the humanities and arts at the university level. Other casualties include the august BBC World Service, once funded by the Foreign Office, now cut adrift, forcing the loss of numerous languages (such as shortwave broadcasts in Hindi) and programmes (including the aforementioned Politics UK).

Supporters of the government's assault on spending argue that the cuts will usher in much-needed "fiscal common sense", trimming the country's debt while freeing the dynamism of the private sector to drive growth. Its critics claim that it will merely create unemployment, drain money from the economy and plunge the country into a recessionary spiral. They point to the uncomfortable fact that the government has already revised downward its growth estimates from last year, with the economy offering few signs of revival. In 21st-century Britain, the economics of Milton Friedman and Maynard Keynes roll up their sleeves and do battle.

The long narrative of the struggle for the welfare state was visible amid the protesting throngs. Railway workers held aloft social-realist murals of the "crows of privatisation" picking apart the angular, block-jawed corpse of "the national rail", an image that would have seemed a relic of a bygone era were the paint not so fresh. Another species of sign merged the faces of Cameron and Margaret Thatcher, a grisly bit of Photoshop magic. Actors dressed in green hose and sporting plastic bows and arrows—a nod to Robin Hood—stalked through the column, firing pretend salvos at Parliament. Samba bands livened proceedings, a welcome change from the limited songbook of protest chants, dreary in their righteous drone. An elderly couple passed around biscuits and oranges. There was passion and mirth, and the footsore camaraderie of hundreds of thousands of people not all sure where the march was going, in several senses—Was it Hyde Park? Trafalgar Square? With Labour or without Labour? Opposition to all cuts or just the scope and pace of cuts? — but very resolved in being there.

The attention of the media has turned to upcoming local elections on 5 May, now the subject of growing anticipation. A year after their downfall, Labour stands to make significant gains in councils across the country, with the Liberal Democrats, in particular, expected to suffer.

Obscured by the plodding buildup to these elections (and the frenzied confection of the royal wedding), it may be difficult to espy the roiling currents of unrest in Britain. The anti-cuts movement does not principally aim to strengthen Labour. Its critique is too visceral and systemic to sit easily within the framework of party politics (an important contrast between the left-wing populist turn in the recession-hit UK and the right-wing populist turn, represented by the Tea Party, in the recession-hit US). Labour leader Ed Miliband did address the gathered demonstrators in Hyde Park, but his party, now in opposition, is still resented by many as responsible for the deregulation and market fundamentalism that pushed Britain to the financial precipice.

As the cuts begin to take effect this summer and workers begin to lose their jobs, the mood in the country will likely grow more sour, the movement begun by students and unions will swell in size and appeal, and a struggle with global resonances, between the imperatives of marketisation and the defence of the welfare state, will intensify. More's the pity that Politics UK will not be there to tell us about it.