Anirudh Malkani is studying abroad in London this quarter. You can follow his thoughts on the UK, its culture and its politics on his blog.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Northwestern recently: the lake, Norbucks, my friends, the newly infamous tailgates(?), the political activism. That last one in particular resonated in my conscience. You see, on Wednesday, I lost my protest-ginity somewhere in Russell Square amidst the skyward fists and incessant roar of a people who just heard that piercing word repeated by elected officials way too many times for comfort: cuts.
On Wednesday, scores of students, workers, mothers and others took to the streets of London to protest recently announced budget cuts from Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s frontman for overseeing England’s newly instituted austerity measures. The cuts include an average 19 percent across-the-board cut for all departments, a shedding of some 490,000 public sector jobs, £7 billion in welfare cuts, an 8 percent cut in defense spending spread over four years and the list goes on.
It goes on to include education as well. The Browne Review (Lord Browne being the education point guard from the House of Lords) entitled Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education, revealed the government’s evaluation of university funding and claims it should be cut 40 percent. The flagship recommendation of this review, however, comes in the form of lifting the current tuition cap of £3,290, which was all the rage in the streets on Wednesday. Some were calling this the very undermining of England’s future; others were screaming that it — well, they’re mostly speechless, actually.
Now wait a second, isn’t that only $5,156.417 at today’s exchange rate anyway? Per annum? That’s all they have to pay?! They shouldn’t be crying about even double that!
But imagine this for a second: Your parents pay for your tuition, your books, your meals, your housing and hell, they even give you a monthly allowance to keep you on your feet (and at The Keg). But then one day the ‘rents have a few debts they need to take care of so they pay for only half of your tuition, half of your books, half of your meals, half of your rent, but don’t increase your allowance to help you make up the gap they’ve left. Moreover, thanks to the recession, you can’t get a job that’ll pay for your newly acquired cost burdens. And if that weren’t enough, Northwestern is thinking of doubling its tuition.
In relative terms, that’s what a lot are feeling in Britain and not just among students: fewer benefits, same disposable income, no prospect of salvation. Hell, even rich people are pissed after an announcement was made that child benefits would be cut for the (relatively) wealthy.
The British welfare state is based on government provision of most services (e.g. healthcare). Sure there are high taxes, but you don’t have to pay for much. And oftentimes what you do have to buy has been subsidized sufficiently by the government (e.g. education). What all the hullabaloo is about is that these services are being cut and the people aren’t getting refunded for it. It’s not too outlandish to speculate that the people might be paying more in taxes for less in the future.
Moreover, as the argument goes, if these austerity measures are meant to improve the long-term health of the British economy, then why are students (the future) suffering for it? And if this is a response to the global recession, then as one protester put it, “Don’t punish the students and the poor for a recession started by the bankers and the rich.” However you feel about the welfare state, you can’t deny that the argument has some merit. We often ask ourselves the same question in America: Why bail out the banks and then charge the indebted for it?
Nowhere in these austerity measures is there a plus side. Sure, the government has a plan to actually increase school (pre-university) funding, protect the National Health Service’s budget (by not giving the NHS the funds it needs) and build a couple of aircraft carriers (after scrapping the planes that were going to fly off of it of course). But what a lot of Brits are really pissed about is that all of these cuts are happening 1. so quickly, 2. so deeply and 3. right now, in the midst of high unemployment and slow growth.
If David Cameron’s voice were in this article somewhere, however, you might be inclined to agree with what he’d be telling you: Austerity is what England needs right now and not a moment later. The United Kingdom’s national debt and deficit is about 71.3 percent and 11.4 percent of GDP respectively, a deficit that is the highest percentage of GDP in the G7.
This threatens the ability of our nation to progress and prosper and it should be taken care of before it’s too late. Hell, America, you could use some belt-tightening yourself! That FY2011 estimate for your debt (99 percent of GDP) and deficit (8.3 percent of GDP) are shaping up that midsection well enough. Try the austerity diet. I hear it’s the new Atkins.
But when I was on the streets today, I wasn’t thinking of numbers, percentages, debts, deficits, sustainable budgets. I was struck and then awed by the endless number of students, workers and random people who picked up a sign and joined the march anyway. All of them weren’t protesting a lack of government involvement in some far off natural disaster. This wasn’t a march for an end to war or a rally to “restore honor.” This was a march for the livelihoods of the very people on the streets that night. Some will have to go home and figure out a new way to pay for college tuition, others will have to figure out how to pay for the home they barely own. But everyone will be going home tonight struggling to care for the deep wounds that austerity has dealt them from within the halls of Westminster.