Anti-austerity movement in the United Kingdom

Anti-austerity movement in the United Kingdom
Part of the impact of the Great Recession

Demonstrators march along Whitehall on 26 March 2011
Date 10 November 2010 – present
Location United Kingdom
Causes Austerity
Methods Demonstrations, strike action, sit-ins, occupations, rioting

The anti-austerity movement in the United Kingdom saw major demonstrations throughout 2011. While agreeing that the country faced a financial crisis, organisations including some UK trade unions, argued that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was pushing deep spending cuts rapidly and without proper consultations or consideration for the impact on the public. They believed that most of the government cuts were designed to target the working class, while big businesses, and financial businesses, in particular businesses with connections to British MPs, were going unpunished whilst avoiding paying any tax, despite their perception that the latter was the main reason for the financial crisis and the subsequent recession.[1]

Earlier demonstrations led to a major event, the March for the Alternative, on 26 March 2011 coordinated by the Trades Union Congress with a crowd of 500,000 people taking to London's streets.[2][3][4]

Further smaller demonstrations led up to a second big event, J30, on 30 June. This was marked by major rallies in London, Brighton, Sheffield, Birmingham and Newcastle, and significant strike actions by teachers and public sector workers.


In May 2010, the United Kingdom general election resulted in no political party achieving sufficient support to form a working majority government on their own. For this reason, the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats entered into a coalition government together. The Conservative leader David Cameron became Prime Minister whilst Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister.

The government planned to put into action sharp spending cuts, stating that they were necessary to address the United Kingdom's record peacetime deficit, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, saying that Britain risks suffering a debt crisis like those seen in Greece, Ireland and Portugal if it fails to reduce the budget deficit.[5] The cuts that they planned proved to be the toughest in the United Kingdom since the Second World War.[6] The new administration proposed an austerity program purportedly intended to fight the nation's debts, with the intention of virtually eliminating budget deficits by 2015. The planned spending cuts included most government departments, which involved around 300,000 public service job cuts and the pay of other civil servants being frozen.

Organisers said the government's plans to eliminate the deficit in four years, and to focus on cutting spending rather than raising tax, did not have national support. They say they want to give a voice to all the people affected by the cuts, and to demonstrate to Westminster that the public rejects the argument that there is no alternative. They and many protesters argue that the cuts will threaten the country's economic recovery.[2][6][7] They suggest that since the government recently spent billions bailing out indebted banks,[8][9] the government should create new taxes for banks and close loopholes that allow some companies to pay less tax. Labour MP Chuka Umunna declared that it was "shocking" to learn that Barclay's Bank paid only 1% of its 2009 profits in taxes while the corporate tax in the UK is 28%. Max Lawson, of the Robin Hood Tax Campaign, said: "If banks paid their fair share we could avoid the worst of the cuts and help those hit hardest by the financial crisis they did nothing to cause."[6][10] Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, remarked that "These are ordinary families and working people, many with their children to send a strong message to David Cameron to halt the damaging cuts which are leading to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and the closure of services including libraries and care homes."[3]

According to The Daily Telegraph, the movement represented "the biggest public backlash against the Government's spending cuts since it came to power."[3]

Timeline of events


Student protests in November and December 2010, focused on cuts and changes to the funding of higher and further education in England. A previous student protest also saw some "violence" when students targeted the automobile in which Charles, Prince of Wales and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall were riding.[7]



On 29 January, the NCAFC (National Campaign Against Cuts & Fees) held a small protest in London. Some minor violence was reported. In Manchester there was a protest of around 5000 people called by the TUC, UCU and the NUS against fees and cuts, billed as "a future that works" rally.[11]

On 1 February, a disused building at the University of Glasgow, Scotland was occupied and re-opened as the Free Hetherington anti-cuts space. It has since attracted much controversy due to heavy-handed attempts to evict the students, staff and community members from the building, which resulted in multiple injuries and arrests.[12] On 12 February, council workers in Darlington, including members of the unions UNISON and GMB, staged a We Love Darlington protest against council cuts in the North-East town.[13] On 24 February a Hull City Council meeting was interrupted by protests.[14] On the previous evening, a Sheffield City Council meeting was invaded by protesters over proposed cuts to local children's centres.[15]


Demonstrators march along Whitehall on 26 March 2011.

On 3 March, the GMB and UK Uncut held a protest on Knightsbridge against tax evasion.[16] A protest was also held on the same day by UK Uncut outside the Barclays bank in Victoria Square, Bolton, opposite Bolton Town Hall. The protest was against tax evasion.[17] On 5 March, there was a protest of around 2,000 people in Manchester about cuts being implemented on the city.[18] UK Uncut held protests in Perth,[19] Manchester,[20] Liverpool,[21] Leicester,[22] Ipswich,[23] Edinburgh,[24] Colchester,[25] Bristol,[26] and Aberdeen.[27] Protests in Perth were against the Scottish Liberal Democrats and tax evasion; protests in Manchester, Ipswich, and Aberdeen were anti-austerity in general; protests in Liverpool were against the Big Society; protests in Leicester and Colchester were against tax evasion and big bonuses for bankers; protests in Edinburgh were against the closure (by the government) of two nursery schools in the city, and tax evasion; and protests in Bristol were against the closure of a library in the city. On 6 March, UK Uncut arranged to hold a protest in Taunton against government cuts.[28] UK Uncut held protests in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets on 7 March, mainly around the Barclay's Bank headquarters in Canary Wharf. During the protest, a group of around a dozen people gathered in front of a sculpture in the bank lobby, and chanted, "Barclays Bank pays no tax, Tower Hamlets gets the axe," and, "Barclays, pay your tax."[29] According to protest organiser UK Uncut, "Around twenty people, all living or working in Tower Hamlets, occupied the foyer of Barclays HQ while startled bankers were directed out a side entrance."[30] UK Uncut held a protest on 9 March, at a budget cuts council meeting in the London Borough of Bexley. During the emotionally charged and noisy meeting, there were shouts of "shame" and "cutting respite care is not right" from the residents in the gallery numbering about 165, and protesters at the back doors chanted "care, not cuts" as councillors entered. Police were brought in to guard the civic offices and residents had their bags searched; those with cameras were banned from entering.[31][32] On 12 March, around 5,000 people marched from Devonshire Green to the venue of the 2011 Liberal Democrats spring conference, where one man was arrested for public order offences and discharge of a firework in a public place. Barricades were set up on Fargate and Surrey Street following several incidents,[33] including a group of protesters running into a Topshop store on Fargate. The event has been "good-natured on the whole", police said. A large group of protesters, separate from the main group, caused violence along the march, including trying (and failing) to set fire to a police car. Much smaller protests were held by UK Uncut in Ipswich[34] and Poole, with five protesters attending the latter.[35] Protesters also occurred in Barker's Pool, Sheffield, on the Day of Rage (12 March). UK Uncut arranged to hold anti-cuts protests in Basildon on 14 March.[36] On 22 March, Around 4,000 people from Universities and Colleges across Scotland marched down the Royal Mile to the Scottish Parliament and staged a rally against introduction of tuition fees and cuts to education. Politicians, student leaders and trade union representatives, including Education Secretary Mike Russell, Labour Party's Des McNulty and Margaret Smith, of the Liberal Democrats addressed the protesters at the rally.[37][38][39][40] On the same day the University of Glasgow management evicted the Free Hetherington occupation. The occupation then moved to the University Senate, before the occupiers were eventually offered their original location back, this offer was accepted.[12][40] Protesters preparing ahead of the 26 March protests broke into 61 Curzon Street in London and occupied the building, calling it a "meeting place".[41] On 26 March, 500,000 people attended a protest in central London. Further outbreaks of violence were reported in London on 27 March. Several hundred people protested in Barker's Pool, Sheffield; the branch of John Lewis was damaged by rioters throwing smoke bombs and rocks. As of 27 March 2011 people have been arrested. The two men charged have been released on bail ahead of court appearances. The other 199 are being held in various police stations around London.[42]


On 28 May, hundreds of protesters at 40 locations across the country staged protests against proposed cuts to the NHS. Dubbed "Emergency Operation", protesters organised by UK Uncut and trade unions converged on high street banks and held demonstrations to draw attention to the bank's role in creating the deficit.[43][44]


On 30 June, a one-day strike, officially called "J30", was held by public sector workers to protest the government's planned uncoventional changes to pension plans and retirement policies, including raising the retirement age from 60 to 66 and the replacing of final salary pension schemes with a career-average system.[45][46][47] The Driving Standards Agency had recently announced that it was to launch a localised trial to determine whether delivering examiners from non-established test centres could help with growing pupil demand, starting in Warrington, Wiltshire, Ayrshire, Wales and Dumbarton.[48]

In the one-day strike, pickets and a series of anti-cuts rallies by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), University and College Union (UCU) and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) went ahead largely as planned. Over 11,000 schools in England were affected by the strike, according to the data released by the Department for Education (DfE).[49][49] Nearly 400 schools were closed in greater Birmingham and the Black Country, with another 70 partially shut. According to union reports, across the rest of England, 3,200 schools were shut and 2,200 were partially closed, out of about 22,000 state-funded schools.[50] Only 18 out of 750 Jobcentre Plus offices in the country were closed due to the lack of strike activity by their staff, while 90% of the civilian call centre staff at the Metropolitan Police did strike. The Coastguard also reported some minor walkouts.[49] According to the Department for Transport, some 76 per cent of driving examiners went to work.[48] Approximately 180 prison office staff and workshop instructors mounted a picket line outside HMP Gartree Prison near the town of Market Harborough.[51] The event was officially called the "J30"[49] after the date it was held on.


The "J30" events were to be followed by a partial one-day overtime ban on 1 July.[52] The PCS chose to have a month-long overtime ban instead[53] The pension cuts and reforms were, like the planned budget cuts in the NHS and Education budget, the main causes of the union's simmering malcontent with the government of that time.[54] The government commented later that day and on 1 June that they thought the strike had failed to live up to what the unions had claimed would have been on the 29th.[55] The UNISON union warned of further strike action in Birmingham.[56]


An additional one-day strike took place across the country on 30 November. The strike was organised by various unions with the Trade Union Congress calling it the biggest strike in a generation. Nearly two-thirds of England's 21,476 schools were closed, all but 33 of Scotland's 2,700 states schools were closed and 7,000 operations in hospitals were cancelled. Twenty-one arrests were made, as Occupy London activists marched from Piccadilly Circus to Panton House, the headquarters of international mining company Xstrata, where the highest paid CEO in the United Kingdom works. The activists entered the building with a large banner saying "All power to the 99%" and subsequently entered onto the rooftop and strapped the banner to the front of the building. Videos of the violent arrests were posted on social-video site YouTube, including a video showing an undercover police officer, tasked with infiltrating the Occupy London march. A total of 75 activist-related arrests were logged in the capital that day.[57]


Public opinion

A YouGov poll, published 26 March 2011, found that a 52% majority supported the "campaign against public sector spending cuts" with 31% against. 55% of voters thought the cuts were necessary, against 32% who thought they were unnecessary, but most felt the cuts were too deep and too fast. The same YouGov poll showed that 38% blamed Labour for the cuts, 23% blamed the coalition and 26% blamed both. The results contained a strong partisan divide, with 83% of Labour supporters and only 19% of Tory supporters backing the anti-austerity movement. YouGov surveyed 2,720 adults online between 20–21 March 2011.[58][59]

However, a Reuters/Ipsos MORI poll in June 2011 found around an even divide over whether public sector workers were right to strike about cuts.[60]


Education Secretary Michael Gove said on BBC Radio 4's Today early on the morning of 26 March, "Of course people will feel a sense of disquiet, in some cases anger, at what they see happening, but the difficulty we have as the Government inheriting a terrible economic mess, is that we have to take steps to bring the public finances back into balance." He also speculated that the march could "move from being [a] family event into being something darker".[3]

Daniel Hannan, a journalist and the Conservative MEP for South East England, stated that the protesters "have decided to indulge their penchant for empty, futile, self-righteous indignation." He wrote, "After 'No Cuts!' the marchers' favourite slogan was 'Fairness!' Alright, then... How about being fair to our children, whom we have freighted with a debt unprecedented in peacetime?"[61]

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, speaking to Reuters news service, accused the Labour Party leadership of "whipping up people's fervour" and succumbing to "the worst kind of infantile opposition politics."[62]

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, proposed to Parliament the implementation of new police powers to remove face coverings and balaclavas, as well as banning orders, similar to those used to ban hooligans from football matches. The Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, strongly backed May on this.[63]

In Gulf News, columnist Ayman Mustafa remarked about anti-austerity strikes and protests that "People still see the financial sector not being punished although it was the main culprit of the financial crisis and the subsequent recession". He also wrote that "most of the government cuts are targeting workers, while big businesses and financial businesses in particular are being incentivised with the cliché that Britain must encourage bankers and fund managers to stay".[1]

See also


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