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In Britain, outrage without a thoughtful outlet

By Anne Applebaum
Monday, December 13, 2010; 8:00 PM

LONDON

In the photograph that appeared the following day, her mouth was open, her eyes were wide, and she seemed to be shouting as her car window shattered. But those who know her insist that the Duchess of Cornwall - Camilla Parker Bowles, wife of Prince Charles - was not frightened by the demonstrators who attacked her car during a demonstration-turned-riot in London late last week: She was angry.

She wasn't alone, either. Three demonstrations - ostensibly protests against a rise in university tuition - have turned violent in London over the past month. During the first, thugs wearing black ski masks broke into the headquarters of the Conservative Party, smashed windows and threw fire extinguishers at the police. During the most recent - on the day of the tuition bill vote - they drew graffiti on a statue of Churchill and urinated on its base, damaged the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, and then attacked the royal car. One protester - the adopted son of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, as it happens - climbed the Cenotaph, London's central war memorial (inscribed "To the Glorious Dead"), swung from a flag that hangs from the top and then tried to start a bonfire outside a courthouse for good measure. Imagine a masked mob on the grounds of the Washington Monument, spray-painting the Jefferson Memorial and trashing Arlington Cemetery and then you'll understand why Camilla - like many others - was unsympathetic.

Still, this kind of violence demands some explanations, particularly because the British public's initial reaction to government spending cuts was, as I wrote in October, stoic acceptance. Unlike the French, who spent most of that same month on strike, the promise of a new age of austerity seemed to appeal to many in Britain, particularly those old enough to feel nostalgia for the penny-pinching, consumer-unfriendly country of their youth.

Clearly, not everybody feels that nostalgia: Charlie Gilmour, age 21, doesn't remember postwar rationing and has probably never eaten corned beef hash from a can. The privately educated son of a multimillionaire, he will never worry about tuition fees and won't have to scrimp and save to pay his mortgage in London's (still) ludicrously expensive housing market, either. But I'm sure he is surrounded at Cambridge by many people who will.

David Willetts, a conservative politician, now the minister in charge of higher education, recently published a book whose title, "The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future and Why They Should Give it Back," pretty much sums up the problem facing Gilmour's friends, if not Gilmour himself: Britain's 20-year housing boom has benefited people who are now in their 50s and 60s - the same group that once enjoyed free university tuition at taxpayers' expense, who anticipate large pensions on their imminent retirement and who are now solemnly instructing their children that it's time to cut back "for the benefit of future generations." Never mind that the hated tuition bill is accompanied by provisions designed to help the poorest, or that British students will still pay only a portion of the real cost of education, which taxpayers still subsidize. Just because a generational struggle takes place within the middle class doesn't make it any less ugly.

If anything, the British protesters - especially the ones wearing black balaclavas and swinging on flags - resemble not striking French transport workers but the anarchist students who were burning down shops and banks in Athens two years ago this week. Like its Greek brethren, the British left has, at the moment, no organized political outlet. The opposition Labor Party is befuddled by defeat and is anyway held responsible for the current economic crisis. Its former leader, Tony Blair, was responsible for imposing tuition fees in the first place, and its current leaders have equivocated about whether to remove them. The Liberal Democrats have stuck by the coalition and voted to raise tuition. The Conservatives clearly aren't going to appeal to people who urinate on Churchill's statue.

All of which seems to leave angry young people with nothing left to do except throw another post-ideological tantrum - a strategy of dubious merit. In the end, central London was trashed last week, but the bill passed. Tuition will go up. The coalition dug in its heels. And I'm sure Charles and Camilla, along with other angry old people, learned their lesson: Next time, take another route to the theater.

applebaumletters@washpost.com

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