Britain weighs risk of protests after London riot
LONDON (Reuters) - The British government tried on Thursday to play down a riot that marred a student protest in London a day earlier, but speculation grew that the trouble could be a sign of things to come as public spending is slashed.
Wednesday's largely peaceful march by tens of thousands of students opposed to planned increases in tuition fees was the first major protest directly linked to austerity measures announced by the coalition government last month.
On the fringes of the demonstration, a much smaller group of youths attacked an office complex which houses the headquarters of the ruling Conservative party, clashing with police, smashing windows, lighting fires and breaking into the building.
Student groups, police and politicians all blamed a small minority of troublemakers, but images of the riot dominated media coverage of the protest and fueled debate about whether anger over austerity measures would boil over again.
"I don't think it's a one-off. We expect more protests because some of these measures are going to be difficult," Conservative legislator Kwasi Kwarteng told Reuters.
He said it would be wrong to rule out the possibility that other protests in the next few months could be marred by violence on the margins, but argued that such events would not have a significant impact on policy or on the broader society.
"Scenes like those we saw yesterday are going to be self-defeating because people seeing them on television are not going to be very sympathetic," he said.
Opinion polls show that most voters have accepted the need to reduce the budget deficit from a peacetime record of over 10 percent of GDP, which the government says is its top priority.
Commenting on the riot during a visit to South Korea on Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron said protests would not deter him from seeing through his plan for 81 billion pounds ($131 billion) in spending cuts over four years. "We'll be absolutely resolute in pursuing that path," he said.
But polls also show that while most voters agree that the deficit must be tackled, many are worried that the government, a coalition of Cameron's Conservatives and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats, is going too far, too fast.
"The size of yesterday's protests is likely to encourage opponents of other parts of the (austerity) package to match the students' effort," said the Guardian newspaper, which tends to be critical of the government, in an editorial.
However, the broad scope of the cuts, from defense to welfare via almost every other area of public spending, makes it unlikely that a single cause would emerge as the focus of general discontent and cause mass unrest.
Any wave of protests that may yet develop as the spending cuts come into force in the next few months and years would mostly be awkward for the Liberal Democrats, who argued before the May election against swingeing and rapid cuts.
Clegg has so far stood firm against critics who accuse him of betraying Lib Dem voters by signing up to a Conservative-led austerity package, but others in his party have broken rank over certain some policies, including the rise in tuition fees.
Clegg and the other Lib Dem candidates had made a solemn pledge before the election to oppose any such increase and the party has struggled to justify its u-turn on the issue.
"I should have been more careful perhaps in signing that pledge," Clegg said on Thursday in comments that revealed just how difficult the Liberal Democrat position was.
Analysts do not expect the party to quit the coalition for some time at least. Its popularity ratings have collapsed since the election and a new election would probably spell disaster for it.
- Tweet this
- Share this
- Digg this