This past October in the UK, the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition announced £81 billion in government spending cuts, the most severe since World War II. In his unveiling speech, Chancellor George Osborne declared that “today is the day when Britain steps back from the brink,” predicting that the cuts would restore “sanity to our public finances and stability to our economy” by decreasing the national deficit. The Chancellor consoled the public by saying that this “is a hard road but it leads to a better future.” The cuts are wide-ranging and include: a reduction of 8 percent in welfare spending, with an £11 billion cut announced first, followed by another £7 billion, slashing housing and child benefits and placing new limits on incapacity benefits (for those who cannot work due to illness or disability); the layoff of nearly half a million public servants; a 51 percent funding cut to local governments across England; and an increase in the state pension age by one year. A 40 percent cut to higher education will increase yearly university tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 (which students will automatically take on as debt) and end the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a subsidy of up to £30 a week for students from low income households who are aged sixteen to nineteen and enrolled in college or optional secondary school. This grossly exclusionary restructuring of higher education was the first measure to be put before Parliament.
The world witnessed the UK’s angry response to the education cuts over the past months: mass demonstrations on November 10, 24, 30, and December 9, and occupations in almost fifty university and college campuses across the UK have seen some of the most vital public resistance and violent clashing between the state and the UK population in many years. The marches were attended by masses of students from pre-teen to university age, by staff from throughout the education system, as well as by countless supporters, while the absence of many established political groups that normally hijack demonstrations of this kind attests to the spontaneous self-determination and organization of the movement. While the demonstrations have focused on cuts to higher education, it has been made clear again and again throughout the protests that most see this movement as part of a wider struggle against the entire range of cuts being implemented. Whereas Osborne asked people in the UK to make sacrifices in order to bring about a better tomorrow, the speeches and placards of the education protests retort that a future without access to benefits or education, with increased unemployment, poverty, and indebtedness, is no future at all.
In light of the public resistance to the cuts so far, an obvious question is: Why did the UK government take such draconian steps to reduce its debt? Many countries currently laden with hefty deficits are avoiding such steps, when economic perils still abound. While the aptly renamed “Con-Dem” government clearly chose the axe end of the fiscal-stimulus-versus-belt-tightening debate, their chosen course is by no means guaranteed to ensure economic recovery. In fact, many predict that such cuts will push the UK back into recession, and possibly even increase the deficit. Among possible reasons for the coalition’s savage cuts to the budget, one stands out: it was a preemptive move to avoid the financial market attacks that have dogged other European countries in the wake of the economic crisis. Although the UK was not in any immediate danger of this and is much better positioned to repay their debts than other eurozone countries, Con-Dem politicians and their advisors from London’s “City” financial district nevertheless decided that their first priority would be to maintain their AAA credit rating and win the approval of the currently deficit-averse markets.
Franklin Evans, timecompressionmachine, (detail) 2010. Acrylic on tape, tape collage, and watercolor on paper.
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