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British government braces for more civil unrest following student protests

A student demonstration against higher fees which turned violent could be a taste of things to come for the British government. Unions and students are promising to continue protests against the austerity drive.

Thousands of students protest plans to increase tuition fees

Thousands of students took to the streets to protest plans to increase tuition fees

Anger at the British government's planned spending cuts has already boiled over into violence.

Students smashed their way through windows into the ruling Conservative Party's headquarters at Millbank Tower in Westminster this week. Some made it to the roof of the building and hurled items down onto police below. Arrests were made as protestors surged back and forth against a police cordon outside Millbank and anti-government chanting rang out.

A police officer reacts, as demonstrators throw a chair through a window

The headquarters of the Conservative Party were attacked as protests turned violent

It was only a small minority of the tens of thousands of students and lecturers who had traveled to London to demonstrate that caused trouble, but police were caught out and admitted to being 'embarrassed' that they did not initially have enough officers on duty to deal with the violence.

The protesters were angry about government plans to cut higher education funding and raise tuition fees - just part of the coalition's spending review designed to remove over 80 billion euros ($109 billion) from public expenditure.

A trillion euros of debt

Britain's budget deficit is one of the largest in the developed world. According to the Office For National Statistics, the UK had to borrow 16 billion GBP (18 billion euros) in September alone to meet its obligations. Its total national debt stood at 952 billion GBP, if the financial interventions to save Britain’s banks are included. That is over a trillion euros, and works out at 64.6 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Even if the stakes taken in UK banks are removed, UK debt is 57.2 percent of GDP. This is way above European Union targets.

George Osborne in parliament

George Osborne introduced deep spending cuts to battle the budget deficit

When Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) George Osborne announced his planned cuts in his spending review in October he described the situation in stark terms:
"We’ve protected health and schools and investment in growth, we’ve reformed welfare and cut waste. We made sure we’re all in this together and we’ve taken our country back from the brink of bankruptcy," he said.

Escaping the axe

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat ruling coalition is ring-fencing its international development, National Health Service and schools budgets - but other government departments have had cuts as deep as 20 percent.

The coalition presented its spending review as a necessity, saying it had no choice because of the financial situation it inherited from the previous Labour government. Professor Joe Nellis of Canfield University's School of Management, however, says that is not entirely accurate.

"The Chancellor has a choice: either cut quick, cut hard, and therefore please the financial markets, because they’re concerned about the scale of our borrowing. Or cut more slowly and please the trade unions and allow the economy to grow our way out of this situation," he told Deutsche Welle.

The Labour Party - now in opposition - says the government's severe cuts pose a risk to the economic recovery in the UK. It says cutting too fast and too deep could send the economy into a double dip recession.

More unrest to come

Students and lecturers say they will continue to protest against higher education reforms which will see tuition fees rising to as much as 9,000 GBP per year, per student. Unions have promised industrial action against the government's cuts too with as many as half a million public sector jobs due to disappear. The coalition claims the private sector will create far more posts than that over the course of the current Parliament but experts are predicting the violent student demonstrations seen in London will not be the last of their type.

"We could face civil unrest, certainly strikes and protests -which have started already - I think that is very possible, and in fact it’s almost inevitable," said Professor Nellis.

student protests

As budget cuts take effect, protests could become more frequent

The government, however, says it will not be swayed into slowing its spending cuts by demonstrations, and Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to avoid comparisons with unrest seen during Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s years in office in the 1980s.

"There have been protests, both peaceful protests and sometimes protests that have turned quite nasty, under all governments, so I don't see it like that," said Cameron.

The austerity drive could prove a serious test for the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition's strength though.

Many Liberal Democrat MPs are furious at being associated with a rise in tuition fees, for example, something they promised not to allow during the election campaign. Several Lib Dems are promising to vote against the government’s legislation in the House of Commons, although it looks unlikely they will be able to stop it passing.

If civil unrest does spread across the country in the coming months, however, the unity of the coalition will come under even greater scrutiny.

Author: Olly Barratt in London
Editor: Rob Turner

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