♦ students protest against fee increases in British universities

• The summary below uses material from five articles in British newspapers. Here are their linked titles:

from The Independent
1. “Coalition majority slashed in tuition fees vote” (10.12.09)
2. “Fees protesters attack prince’s car ” (10.12.09)

from The Guardian
3. “Police tactics at tuition fees protest questioned after further angry clashes,” (10.12.10)
4. “Charles and Camilla attack at student fees protest must face inquiry says Tory,” (10.12.10)
5. “ Royal attack: police say radio link was not to blame,” (10.12.11)

• On December 9th, the British Parliament, meeting in London, voted in favor of a new law permitting universities in the UK to raise their fees. Beginning in 2012, the maximum fee for an ordinary university will be £6000 per year — three times the 2010-2011 maximum of £3,290. The vote was close. The British government has a majority of 83, but on this occasion they only had a majority of 21 because some Members of Parliament from both governing parties refused to vote in favor of the new law.

• For a law to be passed in a country with a parliamentary system, over half the members of Parliament must vote in favor of it. Under such a system, to say that a government has a “majority” of 83 means that fifty percent of the members of Parliament, plus 83 more support it — and will vote for legislation that the government proposes.

• In this system, the “government” is the group of people who actually “rule” the country — the Prime Minister and his or her “cabinet.” Normally, the members of the government all belong to the political party that got the most votes in the previous election. In the most recent election however, none of the parties won more than half the parliamentary “seats” and, therefore, the current British government is a “coalition” of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The Prime Minister David Cameron is the leader of the Conservatives and his deputy, Nick Clegg, is the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

• The “Business Secretary,” Vince Cable, who guided the bill through Parliament believes that, in future, the British government cannot spend as much money on education as it has in the past, and therefore a larger part of the cost has to be paid by the students themselves. The government says it has to reduce the amount of money it has been giving to universities because it is faced with a large “deficit.” The only alternative, they say, would be to allow the quality of British education to decline.

• A government has a “deficit” when it is is not bringing in as much money (in “revenue”) as it is spending on “public services” such as education and other things.

• The Members of Parliament debated the law for five hours before voting on it. While they were doing so, a large group of student protesters — perhaps as many as 30,000— gathered outside. By the middle of the afternoon, the crowd had been “kettled” by large numbers of riot police. Only a very few were allowed to leave.

• “Kettling” is a police tactic in which a group of protesters is surrounded by police officers and held in one place — on a street, a bridge, in a square or a field — for a long time. It has been used in Germany since at least 1986, and in England since 2001. It is generally regarded by police forces and governments as a safe, effective way of limiting damage and disruption during protests, but it has also been widely criticized as an illegitimate restriction on the freedom of speech, as a non-legal punishment, and even as a violation of human rights.

• In the beginning the protesters were mainly cheerful. Many of them danced and chanted and warmed themselves with small fires made by burning placards. There was some violence, however: Around 3:30, about twenty of the protesters, all dressed in black, used a metal battering-ram to break through the police lines. Many others followed, and there were several fights between small groups of protesters and police outside the kettle. Even after police had closed the kettle, some protesters continued to fight with them; they threw paint and the police replied by hitting them with their “batons” and charging them on their horses.[2]

• Finally, just after 5:30, the protesters heard that the debate had ended, the vote had taken place and the new law had passed. Then their behavior changed. They started throwing things — flares, sticks, snooker balls and paint balls — at the police. They set wooden benches on fire. Some of them climbed on top of a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill and painted graffiti on it, including one that said, “Education for the Masses.”

• A while later several groups of protesters broke through the police lines again and headed toward other parts of the city. When one of these groups was in Regent Street at 7:15, they noticed a very large Rolls Royce passing by. Inside they could see Prince Charles and his wife Camilla. The protesters threw paint at the royal car and smashed one of its windows. While they were attacking the car, they shouted, “Off with their heads!” Neither the Prince nor his wife, who were on their way to the theater, were hurt. Many people blamed the police — who are paid £50 million a year to protect the royal family.

• By around 9:00 p.m. many protesters were still kettled in Parliament Square. Then the police began to “herd” them onto Westminster Bridge which crosses the Thames River nearby. More than a thousand were held on the bridge, guarded by about 200 police at either end, until 11:00 pm. They were crowded together very tightly without anything to eat or drink and without any toilets.

• At least thirty-three protesters were arrested during the day and according to one newspaper report [5] “dozens of protesters and several officers [were] injured.” The most serious injury was to a philosophy student, Alfie Meadows. He was apparently hit on the head by a police officer when we tried to leave Parliament Square and, the next day, underwent a three-hour brain operation.