U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron criticized the policing of a student demonstration in London against higher tuition fees that turned into a riot, saying there should have been more officers on the streets.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson described yesterday’s events, in which rioters stormed the headquarters of Cameron’s Conservative Party, as “an embarrassment for us.” The prime minister welcomed the admission.
“I could see a line, a thin blue line, of extremely brave police officers trying to hold back a bunch of people who were intent on violence and destruction,” Cameron told the BBC in an interview today in Seoul, where he’s attending the Group of 20 summit. “As the police themselves have said, there weren’t enough of them.”
Fifty people were arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass and criminal damage and 41 officers were injured in the demonstration, Police Minister Nick Herbert told lawmakers in the House of Commons in London today.
Protesters opposed to government plans to cut university funding smashed glass on the ground floor of the 27-story Millbank Tower, on the north bank of the Thames, close to Parliament, and started a fire outside the building, burning effigies of Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Herbert said that 2,000 people had gathered around Millbank when the damage was done.
“Protesters from the main march seemed to be encouraged by a number of individuals to storm the building and throw missiles,” Herbert said. “There’s no place for such behavior in Britain’s democracy.”
London’s Metropolitan Police planned to deploy 225 officers to control the demonstration based on predictions from the National Union of Students, which organized the demonstration, that 5,000 people would take part. The union, which raised its estimate to 15,000 on Nov. 9, said on its website today that 52,000 people joined the march.
The estimates of the number of officers needed were “inadequate” and the Metropolitan Police will carry out a “thorough review” of its response, Herbert said. “It is clear that there are questions about the intelligence here.”
London Mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative, said there would be a “proper investigation” into the level of police preparedness.
“It was not the police who set on this violence and thuggery, it was a tiny minority of students, perhaps not even students, and I hope very much they are apprehended, prosecuted and face the full force of the law,” Johnson told Sky News television. “I’m not going to stand here and undermine the police force who are doing a fantastic job 365 days a year to keep our city safe.”
It was the first major protest since the government outlined plans on Oct. 20 to slash 81 billion pounds ($131 billion) from spending by 2015 to narrow a record budget deficit.
Cameron’s coalition government plans to allow British universities to charge as much as 9,000 pounds a year for tuition, almost triple the current level, as the government seeks to cut subsidies to colleges.
Much of the anger was directed at Clegg, whose Liberal Democrat party promised before the May 6 election to vote against any increase in tuition fees. Clegg said today that the current policy has his “total and unequivocal support.”
‘Understand the Anger’
“I should have been more careful perhaps about signing that pledge, but at the time I really thought we could do it,” Clegg told ITV’s “Daybreak” show today. “I understand the anger, but I hope when people look at the detail and ask themselves what it means for them, their children and grandchildren they’ll think it actually makes sense.”
NUS President Aaron Porter condemned the violence and said it had distracted attention from the reasons for the protest and cost public sympathy for the campaign.
“What we had done was assemble 50,000 students which I’m sure would have got a hell of a lot of attention and would have sent a clear message to government,” Porter said in an interview with BBC television.
“If we’re now having to spend time talking about the rights and wrongs of violence and criminal damage, in many respects I think it undermines our argument rather than allowing us to concentrate on the devastation to our universities and colleges,” he said.
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