Are British student protests a harbinger of future violence over austerity measures?

Protests over austerity measures have swept France and Greece. A massive student protest Thursday in London questions whether continental-style rioting has crossed the English Channel.

Toby Melville/Reuters
A police officer stands on duty outside the Conservative Party headquarters following a mass protest in central London November 11. Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday condemned as unacceptable violence at a demonstration in London against his government's plans to increase tuition fees for students.

As workers cleared debris from a violent student demonstration against hikes in tuition fees, Britons paused to wonder on Thursday morning: Is this the shape of things to come?

Dozens of arrests were made Wednesday after some participants in a larger student demonstration broke away and stormed a building in central London housing the headquarters Conservative Party, the senior partner in the ruling coalition.

But while mainstream student leaders accused groups of anarchists and far left splinter groups of hijacking the event, the media and others focused today on whether the clashes are a harbinger of further violence as public anger builds over Britain’s severe state spending cuts.

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"As next year goes on there will probably be more protests, and there is likely to be more occupations by students,” predicts Clive Bloom of New York University’s London campus, an expert on street demonstrations and the author of "Violent London: 2,000 Years of Riots, Rebels, and Revolts."

French-style protests?

“The trade unions are also threatening action next spring, and some strikes have already taken place, but whether it builds to the level of France is another matter," says Professor Bloom.

Even before Tuesday, the specter of street disturbances that recently brought France to a standstill and the rioting that has become a regular fixture of life in Greece also loomed over Britain.

Indeed, rumor in political circles had it that Britain’s ruling coalition, which came into power warning that near-unprecedented austerity was the only way of tackling the country’s deficit, had given itself six months to spell out the full scale of the cuts before Britons would begin to push back. The coalition’s sixth month anniversary was Thursday.

A gentleman doesn't riot

Many of those hoping that the United Kingdom will not experience continental-style unrest subscribe to the popular notion that Britons generally eschew street protest while the French riot at the drop of a hat. It’s not entirely without foundation, says Professor Bloom.

“France has had revolutionary tradition over the last few hundred years," he says in a telephone interview. "You overthrow the system and try to start again. The British system is radical rather than revolutionary, so change is more incremental. France also has stronger unions and a continuing tradition of communism and Marxism, which we have lost.”

Nevertheless, Britons still freshly recall the 1980s, when a previous austerity drive under Margaret Thatcher was the spark for violence in deprived urban communities. Union leaders currently flexing their muscles have also drawn parallels between the current mood and protests in 1990 against the "poll tax" – a local levy that sparked riots in London and was eventually replaced.

Police force 'embarrassed'

Acknowledging that his force was unprepared for Monday’s mayhem – only 225 officers were initially drafted in for the 50,000-strong demonstration – Tuesday’s events were described by Sir Paul Stephenson, the chief of London’s Metropolitan Police, as an “embarrassment."

Attending the G20 summit in Seoul, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that "the full force of the law" should be used against protesters who smashed windows, lobbed projectiles, and occupied the building housing his party’s headquarters.

The main demonstration, against plans to raise the cost of studying at a university to up to $14,000 a year (three times the current rate), was the largest street protest yet against Mr. Cameron's sweeping austerity measures.

Most Britons accept cuts

However, some analysts suggest that because the austerity measures will be slowly phased in – not to mention the apparently widespread resignation and support for them among fairly large sections of British society – Britain will avoid Greek-style turmoil.

“If you really wanted to be apocalyptic you could look back to the early 1980s when there were similar spending cuts and there were inner city riots virtually throughout the entire country,” says Mark Garnett of Lancaster University, who specializes in modern British political culture.

“But it seems to me that these cuts have been phased and staged," Dr. Garnett says by telephone. "People are different in their outlook now. They are almost fatalistic about the cuts and, even though they might say it was the bankers’ cuts, they accept the government’s position that public spending has to take the hit.”

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