The Clash Or The Sex Pistols Surely Would Have Written A Song About This

Sebastian E. Payne at The Spectator had a liveblog of the protests

Fraser Nelson at The Spectator:

The revolution may not be televised, but protests certainly are – and the process magnifies the drama. Since last night, the news broadcasts have all had footage of two thugs trying to smash the windows of the Treasury and, in the process, familiarising themselves with the properties of bombproof glass. The attack on Charles and Camilla’s royal limo is splashed across all this morning’s front pages.

The script is so well-rehearsed now that I hesitate to repeat it: the vast majority are peaceful protesters, infiltrated by vandals who soak up the attention. Many of the protesters yesterday looked like they’d get a cab straight back home to their Notting Hill trust-fund houses. This is not 1968 or the Poll Tax riots: it’s some produced-for-television protest at cuts which are 3.3 per cent over four years. Milder even than the now-forgotten post-1976 cuts.

Yes, there’s a budget deficit to fix – but did the universities budget really have to take such a knock? The Lib Dem error, in my view, is accepting the Tory pledge not to cut the wasteful NHS budget. Had its budget been shaved by the same amount as other government departments, there would be no need to cut the uni budget. The axe could have been wielded more evenly. The lesson from Canada’s cuts was that there should be no protected departments: if you protect a budget as massive as that of the NHS (which accounts for a quarter of departmental spending), then you concentrate pain elsewhere. Someone – in Britain’s case, undergraduates – gets it in the neck.

That said, British university funding is an anomaly. Look at the websites of the top ten world universities and those of Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial jump out with the tiny amount they are able to charge undergraduates. The elite American unis are about £30k each.

Bagehot at The Economist:

The newspapers were duly full of pictures of the royal couple, as well as images of the smashed window of their car and a great smear across its gleaming bodywork where somebody had thrown a can of paint. But of course, this was effectively an accident. The prince had been on his way to an annual charity theatrical extravaganza, the Royal Variety Performance (a duty which is already one of the trials of the royal year), when his car had been stuck in traffic near Oxford Circus, far from the centre of the student protests. By chance, a smallish breakaway group of protestors were in the same spot, apparently intent on smashing up some posh shops when suddenly the poshest car in Britain purred up next to them, bearing a prince in black tie. Some sort of attack on the car was more or less inevitable at that point. The prince was a victim of dreadful luck (and arguably poor reconnaissance and teamwork by the police and his protection officers, a question which is even now being investigated). But even as I watched I found myself thinking, this could so nearly have been so much worse. And luck has been at the forefront of my mind all along, during this first wave of unrest.

Let me explain. I’m pretty sure that if the occupant of the Rolls Royce last night had been the Queen, an elderly lady who also commands much more public respect and loyalty than her son, the country would have woken this morning in a much darker mood. What if the armoured glass of the Rolls Royce’s window had given way, injuring the prince (or the Queen)? What if a police bodyguard had been injured, or pulled his gun? (There are reports in some newspapers that the policeman in the prince’s chase car was bashing protestors away with his car door, which sounds a bit close for comfort if true). What if the royal car had injured someone when it finally made its escape at some speed? A different outcome to any one of these what-ifs would, I think, make Britain feel a markedly edgier country right now.

I thought the same at the first student protests that saw windows broken at the Conservative party HQ, and a fire extinguisher thrown from the roof, narrowly missing the police below. If the extinguisher had been a foot to one side and killed a policeman, the politics of austerity would have taken a quite different turn.

Is this a turning point? Regular readers will know that my hunch 10 days ago, during the last student protests, was that this was not a revolution in the making. I still think that. It does not take very many trouble-makers to create the sort of violent scenes seen yesterday.

Nor were all of them students, though when I was on the streets last week I did not see too many of the “rent-a-mob anarchists” being talked about in some tabloids this morning. True, there were some of the older, tough anti-globalisation types you see at things like G8 or G20 protests. But the people who worried me were more the young 16 year old kids from tough outer suburbs, many with scarves over their faces. They radiated some of the same sort of anger of the “casseurs” seen at Parisian demonstrations, from the grim housing estates around the French capital. Though at French protests it is true that casseurs are often a group apart from the main body of demonstrators, and spend as much energy attacking students and passers-by as they do fighting the police.

In contrast, if teenagers were behind some of the serious vandalism and trouble yesterday, I would guess there was a solidly political core to their anger. The small number of teenagers I spoke to last week were incensed that a government full of posh millionaires was—as they saw it—removing the public support that would allow them any hope of attending higher education. It is an under-reported detail that many of the demonstrators are not just angry about the idea of rising tuition fees in the future, they are also very angry about the planned abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, a £30 a week bribe (for want of a better word) paid to pupils who turn up on time every morning at sixth form colleges. There are, as it happens, good arguments to be made for and against the EMA. But to the demonstrators, the only explanation was that a bunch of rich people in power are heartlessly taking something from poor kids, because they are selfish and do not care.

Michael White at The Guardian:

After watching last night’s TV news and reading this morning’s front pages about the attack on the royal Roller, protesting students, and their leaders, must be in despair. It elbows the purpose of their demo – condemnation of the coalition’s tuition fees hike – right out of sight.

Worse than that, it turns the whole agenda on its head. This morning, the BBC is talking all about security at public buildings and why the police were not protecting Prince Charles and his moll more effectively on their way to the Royal Command performance.

At least armed officers didn’t shoot anyone, the Met’s boss, Sir Paul Stephenson has just suggested on air.

It would be silly, as well as cynical, to imagine that David Cameron is privately pleased to see public indignation so easily deflected from his government’s controversial policy. Or that Nick Clegg is positively thrilled to have a day off from his new constitutional role as air raid shelter for the Tories.

Why? Because they’re not wicked or stupid. Trouble on the streets means political trouble and ill-affordable expense for the coalition. Two thousand coppers on overtime cost money.

Worse, today’s FT’s choice of page one photo is not Fleet Street’s obvious choice – Camilla looking as if someone has just pinched her bottom (Charles is in the clear, his right hand visible). No, it picked flames in Parliament Square. Feather-brained markets may push up interest rates on government debt if they see many more like that. Greeks will be shaking their heads as they sip their German-funded breakfast coffees.

I spent several hours on the streets yesterday, on both sides of the river and around Parliament Square. My impression was that the demo was mostly good-natured and that the police were on their best behaviour, certainly mostly cheerful and polite in my hearing on the Westminster Abbey corner of the kettle where a lot of the aggro took place.

When one officer slipped on grassy mud he got up and grinned. Students laughed too and shouted “Calmer”, or was it “Karma”? That incident was at least as typical as the student to whom I spoke after seeing him with a bleeding head. A truncheon did it, he said. The police pushed us “on the front line. We stood our ground”.

But what does a police commander do when faced with a small but determined cadre of people determined to smash property or provoke a fight? Were the troublemakers students? It’s not always easy to tell. Many students – including those still at school – struck me as well-dressed middle class kids who wouldn’t know how to hurt a fly.

There again, it’s sometimes to easy to dump all the blame on the feral youths who emerge from bad neighbourhoods in all great cities looking for a target for their anger. Old ladies or Damilola Taylor, royal cars, shatterproof Treasury windows. Student demos are a perfect cover for the mob.

Paul Pillar at The National Interest:

The attack by student protesters Thursday evening in London on a limousine carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, offers some broader conclusions. None of them are, as some commentary has suggested, that we are on the verge of a new era of protest with students in the vanguard. My alternative lessons:

Security threats can emerge from just about anywhere. The main theme in commentary in Britain about the incident is recrimination over a breakdown in security. “How could this be allowed to happen?” is the most frequently asked question. Investigations and inquiries no doubt will retrospectively point to some error in judgment about the route selected, or some shortfall of communication between the royals’ security detail and other police elements. But even with terrorism—which this incident was not, although it could have been—the potential sources of threat are multitudinous. When non-terrorist agents of disruption such as rowdy students on a London street are factored in, the potential sources are essentially infinite. Even meticulous preparations cannot allow for them all.

Narrow self-interest can be behind wider trouble. Far from being the harbinger of a big new social movement, protesters who assaulted the royal limo and have been involved in other recent disruptions in Britain are overwhelmingly students upset about one very specific measure in the coalition government’s austerity program; the raising of university tuition fees. Similar issues help to explain why there have not been protests in the United States against its current wars that remotely resemble those forty years earlier over the Vietnam War. The different magnitude of the wars and the number of casualties is one difference, but the presence or absence of conscription—and how it affects the personal interests of college-age males—is clearly another.

Alex Massie at The Daily Beast:

The royal family was not the only unlucky target of protest. Rioting students and anti-capitalist groups smashed the windows of the Treasury building. Others urinated on the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, just across the street from the House of Commons, while one student was photographed swinging from the Union Flag that hangs from the Cenotaph—Britain’s principle memorial to her war dead.

This wasn’t some disadvantaged teenager from one of London’s tougher housing projects protesting against rises in university tuition fees but, rather, a bona fide “trustafarian” and history student named Charlie Gilmour—son of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.

Altogether now, every wag in the country quipped: “We Don’t Need No Education.”

Gilmour apologized today, but the damage had been done. It may have been just a minority of the 20,000 student protesters who captured the headlines, but they did more to discredit their cause than any argument the government could have produced.

The pictures and footage of violence were also a reminder of the role luck plays in politics. The riots led Thursday’s news bulletins and Friday’s newspapers, deflecting attention from the first serious parliamentary rebellion against David Cameron’s coalition. The government’s majority was cut from 84 to 21 as MPs voted on controversial—and painful—plans to triple university tuition fees.

(American readers are permitted a rueful smile at the fact that Britain’s leading universities will now be able to charge up to $14,000 a year.)

For Cameron’s coalition partners in the Liberal Democrats this was an agonizing moment. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, had campaigned on a slogan of “No More Broken Promises” and every one of his MPs had signed a pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees.

Power is about choices, however, and the Liberal Democrats found themselves in deep, uncharted waters. While Clegg tried to muster support for the government line, fully half his MPs rebelled against him and voted with the opposition. Clegg put his credibility on the line and may reap an electoral whirlwind after one of the more spectacular political flip-flops in recent memory.

The rioters, however, may prove his best allies. “Middle Britain” was horrified by the scenes of violence and the half of the population that never attended college is unlikely to be impressed by the sight of well-off students disgracing themselves and defiling national monuments.

For the coalition government, however, it was also a warning of what may be to come. As the deep spending cuts necessary to rebalance Britain’s broken public finances take their toll, and as the young are radicalized by their perception of an uncaring government, such scenes, more reminiscent of Paris than London, may yet become a regular and disconcerting part of the British political landscape.

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