London Falling?

Were last week's tuition riots a flash in the pan or a sign of things to come for Britain's fragile coalition government?


LONDON — Four days after the student protests against the coalition government’s plan to raise tuition fees for English universities, which included charges by mounted police, broken windows at the Treasury, the chucking of paint balls, and an attack on Prince Charles’ official car, the aftermath is still dominating headlines — replacing the revelations from the Wikileaks diplomatic cables at the top of the British news agenda.

At the end of the day, the coalition government got approval for the plan through the House of Commons, part of its strategy to cut the government’s budget deficit by around £150 billion. The plan comes on the heels of significant reductions in the defense and welfare budgets. But the cost has been high.

Just a few weeks ago, when French unions were protesting against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reforms, economists and commentators in Britain were tut-tutting about how the French just don’t understand the gravity of the global economic crisis and need to face reality.

But now it seems that English students are, perhaps, the first group of people in Britain who have realized the personal cost of their government’s economic policies.

Then there’s the stress to the government itself. The Liberal Democrat Party, the junior partner in the coalition with the Conservative Party, which had gone into last May’s general election promising to abolish all university tuition fees, split down the middle in the vote in parliament as more than half its MPs voted against the measure, while some abstained — which in a political system that puts great store in party loyalty is no small matter.

The main questions facing British politics are whether there will be more violent protests against the government’s austerity measures, and whether the Liberal Democrats hold together and keep the coalition in power until its mandate runs out in 2015.

In other words, was this a spasm of protest or the shape of things to come for the coalition?

While this was the third recent protest against tuition increases, the level of anger and the fact it is students in the vanguard of protest against public spending cuts has surprised most commentators here. For many years, the conventional wisdom has been that today’s British students had abandoned the political activism of their parents’ generation, and were focused on getting good grades so they could get high paying jobs; some even dubbed them ‘Thatcher’s children’.

But that stereotype has now taken a severe knock.

The government’s plan to allow universities from 2012 on to charge up to £9,000 (about $14,000) a year for tuition, which is three times the current amount, means that all but the wealthiest students will now have to borrow much more to fund their degrees. The prospect of amassing much higher debt combined with the prospect of fewer well-paid jobs in a struggling economy has brought students back to the streets, evoking memories of student protests from the late 1960s.

The organizers of the protest, including the National Union of Students and other ad hoc coalitions of students and academics, have vowed to continue their action, and, as the plan still needs to pass through the House of Lords (where it could be amended), for the protesters there is still something to play for.

If the student protests are to be more than a spasm, other groups would need to follow the students lead. The labor trades unions, which still have around seven million members in Britain, would typically be in the forefront of opposition to spending cuts, but so far their action has been muted by comparison. This could change in the spring when it becomes clearer how local governments will cope with the cut in the money they get from London. Large-scale redundancies in local government are thought to be inevitable.

Then there are the government proposals, yet to reach Parliament, which would radically change the way the National Health Service and schools in England are run and funded. Here , the coalition plans to devolve spending decisions down to local doctors and schools themselves with the intention of cutting out layers of bureaucrats. These could also face resistance, especially from the people who currently run health authorities, hospitals, and local government who currently make spending decisions for the schools in their area.

Although it remains to be seen whether that takes the form of protest demonstrations or the less obvious bureaucratic obstructionism immortalized by Sir Humphrey Appleby, the senior civil servant in the BBC comedy ‘Yes Minister’ who famously said, "Abolishing government departments is unthinkable. Amalgamating them, however, is admirable. You keep all the existing staff and add an extra layer of co-ordinating management on top."

The other question is whether the Liberal Democrats can recover from the split over tuition fees and whether their coalition with the Conservatives can withstand the strain when the two parties are not united behind their leaders. Ever since the coalition was formed in May, the Conservative leader, Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat counterpart, Nick Clegg have got on well. They remain committed to making their partnership work, but as the months have passed it is clear there are MPs in both parties who are less enthusiastic about the joint enterprise. 

Clegg will point to the fact the coalition survived its first big test because the education legislation was passed. He also argues the new fees will be fairer than they would have been had either the Conservatives or Labour been governing alone, since the Liberal Democrats had insisted on special measures to help students from poorer families.

The problem for Clegg is that his critics in the party have not accepted the vote as the end of the matter. Senior figures are now arguing that the left of the party should reach out to the opposition Labour party to join forces on specific issues to oppose government legislation they disagree with. The polls don’t help Nick Clegg either, as they suggest support for the party has fallen by more than a third since the May election.

Like any party, the Liberal Democrats are not monolithic. The party counts among its members those market liberals who have more in common with the Conservatives, and others who share Labour’s belief that a fairer society requires more intervention by the state. So as the public spending cuts begin to take effect, the divisions in the party could grow and threaten unity.

Labour has already seen an opportunity. Despite the party lacking a detailed alternative policy on university funding, this weekend has seen senior Labour figures offering to work with Liberal Democrats who are unhappy with the positions their party is taking in the coalition government. And at a press conference on Monday, Labour leader, Ed Miliband was explicit: "to Liberal Democrats who fear their deal with the Tories is shifting the gravity of British politics to the right, I invite them to work with us against the direction in which this government is taking Britain."

Pressure may now build onCameron to help out his Liberal Democrat partners with more compromises on policy, but if he does move too far in that direction it could provoke splits in the Conservative ranks — and indeed less noticed in Thursday’s fees vote was that a small number of Conservative MPs also rebelled against the party leadership.

As the dust settles after the tuition fees vote, Cameron and Clegg have the satisfaction of knowing they have succeeded in getting enough of their MPs to back a contentious policy, but there are more issues down the track that could prove equally, if not more, divisive.

Political commentators here expect the next big test of unity to be the issue of control orders. These are legal restrictions on terrorism suspects who can’t be brought to trial, which limit their freedom of movement and control who they can communicate with. Introduced by the last government, the Liberal Democrats oppose them on civil liberties grounds, while senior Conservatives seem to see them as the least bad option for ensuring public safety.

The coalition’s ongoing review of counterterrorism laws was postponed in October amidst reports of deep disagreement over the orders. But if Liberal Democrat and Conservative leaders end up agreeing to keep them, this could provoke another rebellion by leftwing Liberal Democrats and put even more strain on the coalition.

It is an old adage of British politics that rebelling against your own government can be habit forming for MPs. If that does indeed happen, questions over Nick Clegg’s authority over the party would certainly grow.  If he is replaced by his party, all bets on the survival of the coalition would be off.

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