Demonstrating students broke windows at the complex housing the headquarters of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party in London in protest against plans to cut funding to universities and increase tuition fees.
Thirty-five people were arrested, while seven police officers and seven protesters were injured in the demonstration, a Metropolitan Police spokesman said by phone.
The protesters smashed glass on the ground floor of the 27-story Millbank Tower on the north bank of the River Thames, close to Parliament, today as a planned march turned violent. Demonstrators started a fire outside the building, burning effigies of Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
Cameron’s coalition government plans to allow British universities to charge as much as 9,000 pounds ($14,000) a year for tuition, almost triple the current level, as the government seeks to cut subsidies to colleges. It’s the first major protest since the government outlined its plans on Oct. 20 to reduce spending by 81 billion pounds by 2015 to narrow the record budget deficit.
“We may be becoming more Greek and French in our attitude to economic stringency,” Bill Jones, professor of politics at Liverpool Hope University, said in a telephone interview. “Usually the British are much more culturally phlegmatic. This may be a sign of things to come.”
‘No to Cuts’
Around 30 students managed to get on to the roof of the tower to unfurl a banner that read “No to Cuts,” while some threw missiles and sprayed fire extinguishers. Helmeted riot police moved in to guard the building, and office workers were evacuated. Several hundred protesters, some drinking cans of beer, massed in the foyer of the tower, smashing furniture and chanting slogans.
The president of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, threatened to unseat lawmakers who back the measures. He told reporters in London before the march that students will attempt to force special elections in the districts of Liberal Democrats who renege on pledges made before the May 6 election to oppose any increase. The Liberal Democrats joined the Conservatives in government after the vote.
“We will initiate a right to recall against any MP that breaks their pledge on tuition fees,” Porter said. He later used Twitter Inc.’s social-networking website to condemn the violent protests. “Disgusted that the actions of a minority of idiots are trying to undermine 50,000 who came to make a peaceful protest,” he wrote.
The Metropolitan Police had no immediate estimate of numbers. It blamed the damage to property in a statement on “a small minority of protesters.”
“This was thuggish, loutish behavior by criminals and we need to ensure that we have a thorough investigation to bring these criminals in front of a court to answer for their crimes,” Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson told Sky News television. “It’s not acceptable. It’s an embarrassment for London and an embarrassment for us.”
Leanne Johnston, 23, an English and drama student at John Moores University in Liverpool, said the break-in to the tower was carried out by “a group of people that didn’t look like the core group of students.” The hard-core protesters looked like “punks,” she said in an interview.
“Whatever the merits of the points they’re making, there’s absolutely no excuse for a tiny minority to engage in acts of savage and unnecessary brutality,” London Mayor Boris Johnson told Sky. “I very much hope the people responsible for these actions will be brought to justice.”
Another demonstrator, James Huelin, a 24-year-old civil-engineering student at the University of Bath, was dressed in a suit that appeared to be made of pound and dollar notes.
“The bottom line is it’s not fair,” he said in an interview. “The choice to go to university should be based on academic ability, not the size of your wallet.”
Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg may struggle to stop some of his lawmakers who have expressed concern about the proposals from voting against them. Deputizing for Cameron at the premier’s weekly 30-minute question-and-answer session in Parliament today, Clegg was asked 12 times about the plans.
The deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, Harriet Harman, accused Clegg of being swayed by Conservative plans when the Liberal Democrats joined the coalition.
“We all know what it’s like: you are at freshers’ week, you meet up with a dodgy bloke and you do things that you regret,” Harman told Clegg. “Isn’t it true he has been led astray by the Tories?”
Clegg responded that the decision to charge students was a result of the poor state that Labour left the public finances in after 13 years in power.
“I have been entirely open about the fact that we have not been able to deliver the policy that we held in opposition,” Clegg said. “Because of the financial situation, because of the compromises of the coalition government we have had to put forward a different policy.”
The Liberal Democrats have stood by their “wider ambition” of making sure poorer students are not deterred from going to university, he said.
“There may be more instances of this kind but whether the protests will match the level of violence seen around the poll- tax riots in the 1980s remains to be seen,” Wyn Grant, a professor of politics at Warwick University and an expert on protest movements, said in a telephone interview.
Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government brought in the flat-rate community charge, known as the poll tax, at the end of the 1980s to replace a system of local taxes on real estate. It led to widespread protests and was replaced with a different property-based levy in the 1990s under Thatcher’s successor, John Major.
“I don’t think the government will suddenly change its policy given the overall fiscal context,” Grant said. “There will be some Liberal Democrat rebels but not enough to defeat the government in the House of Commons.”
Earlier today, during a trip to China, Cameron defended fee rises to students at Beijing’s Peking University.
“In the past we have been pushing up the fees on overseas students and using that as a way of keeping them down for domestic students,” Cameron said. “We have done the difficult thing. We have put up contributions for British students.”