By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 7:30 PM
LONDON - In the fiercest protest yet against dramatic austerity measures in Britain, tens of thousands of students took to the streets of London on Wednesday, with a breakaway group storming the headquarters of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party.
Protesters marched in opposition to a government plan that could triple the cost of tuition for hundreds of thousands of students, part of a broader effort by the new Conservative-led coalition to slash the British budget deficit, which is now one of the highest in the industrialized world.
Almost 50,000 students marched peacefully on the Parliament building in the shadow of Big Ben, but the demonstrations turned violent later in the day as dozens of protesters broke windows and forced their way into the lobby of the Conservative Party's headquarters a few blocks away. As of late Wednesday, police were still holding at least 30 to 40 students for questioning outside the damaged party offices.
Protests against budget cuts have become a fixture across continental Europe in recent months as governments have moved to slash public spending and fix their finances in the wake of the global financial crisis. But many observers were surprised by the violence in central London because the British public had thus far been more tolerant of cuts than their counterparts in nations such as France and Greece.
Nevertheless, analysts said the size and force of the London demonstrations still paled when compared with those confronting governments on the other side of the English Channel and were unlikely, in and of themselves, to alter the government's course.
"These are students, and, well, students march. If this were 2 million public service workers instead, then things would be different," said Tony Travers, a political analyst at the London School of Economics. "The bottom line is that this is nothing like the protests we've seen in France. And as it is, this does not look like it's going to faze the government."
Still, the protests amounted to the biggest push-back the young coalition has yet seen to its plan to trim $128 billion from the budget over the next four years. And that push-back may yet grow. Union leaders in Britain, for instance, have vowed to force the government to water down its plan.
Underscoring the breadth of opposition to government cost-cutting, a group of retired admirals published a letter in the Times of London on Wednesday condemning the planned cuts to defense spending. They argued, for instance, that the decision to scrap the nation's only aircraft carrier early to save cash would leave the potentially oil-rich Falkland Islands vulnerable to another invasion by Argentina, which sparked a brief but deadly war with Britain when it tried to seize the islands in 1982.
Thus far, however, few elements of the government plan have caused more anger on the streets than its bid to shift more of the burden of funding this nation's heavily subsidized universities onto students through higher tuition. The government plan could raise the price of a college education as high as $14,500 a year, three times as high as current caps.
The opposition Labor Party, which in the 1990s introduced tuition at British universities that had long been free to attend, has condemned the plan to raise fees. It has particularly criticized the Liberal Democrats, the junior partners in the ruling coalition, for supporting the measure after campaigning against tuition increases in the general election.
It is wrong "to shove the cost of higher education on to the students and their families," Harriet Harman, deputy head of the Labor Party, said on the floor of Parliament as students marched through the streets.
Among them was Maggie Hayes, 20, a second-year English major at the University of Liverpool who took the bus down to London to join the protest.
"I really believe that education is a right, not a privilege," she said. "The cuts to education are frightening. I don't think sitting and doing nothing about it is right."
Many demonstrators, including the protest's student organizers, condemned the violent actions of a few dozen who stormed the Conservative Party headquarters, forcing the evacuation of workers in the London high-rise that houses the party's offices.
"Some people came today who were rogue protesters, people with other motives," said Matthew Pieterse, 20, a communications major at the University of Liverpool. "We don't condone the violence. It's a disgrace, and it's coming from a small minority."
Special correspondent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi contributed to this report.