Protesters thronged into the streets of another capital this weekend to protest government spending cuts that will reduce the power of public-sector unions – and nanny state services in general. This time, the capital in question wasn’t in the middle of America, but in the heart of the United Kingdom, as hundreds of thousands marched through the streets of London to protest austerity measures that the coalition government has imposed.
The UK now owes more money as a percentage of GDP than any time in recent history since it paid off its World War II debts. Excluding the financial sector, the UK’s national debt is running over sixty per cent of GDP. According to Conservative delegate to the European Union Daniel Hannon, the UK currently spends more money servicing that massive debt than it does on national defense. Clearly, something needed to be done and the coalition government of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Liberal Deputy PM Nick Clegg moved to start chipping away at that mountain of red ink shortly after taking power in 2010.
Much like Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the government’s plan to fix the island’s economic woes included a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts. It is the $130 billion in spending cuts that has the left infuriated, and no one in Britain seems quite so angry as those people who are members of or are at the head of the nation’s labor unions.
Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite, the largest labor union in the UK and Ireland. He used the march this weekend to attack the Cameron government with the kind of hysterical hyperbole that has become the default mode on the left whenever someone tries to rein in out of control government spending. According to the story in The Independent:
[McCluskey] told the protesters they were bearing witness to services closing, old people going without care, libraries, swimming pools and parks going to ‘ruin’ and young people heading for a life on the dole. ‘But you represent a spirit of resistance in every workplace and community that says we are not going to have our way of life killed so that the rich and greedy can live as they please,’ he said.
Unison is another influential union in the UK, one that makes no bones about the fact that it uses union dues to lobby the Labour Party in order to bend MPs to the union’s will. Unison’s general secretary, Dave Prentis, employed the same sort of rhetoric as his colleague at Unite:
‘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,’ Prentis said.
It’s difficult to imagine why apparently savvy organizers like McCluskey and Prentis would believe that appealing to class warfare themes would resonate in Britain in 2011. True, the “us versus them” theme drew somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 protesters into the streets of London on Saturday, but all reports indicate that the atmosphere more resembled a party than an angry protest. A few hundred marchers did break away to make mischief, and a few police officers were injured, but organizers universally denounced those violent miscreants, reaffirming their commitment to peaceful and respectful debate.
London on Saturday was thus something of the “anti-Madison” in terms of the strategies that the left employed to protest a resurgence in conservative government fiscal policies. However, it also emphasized the essential conundrum the left faces: in this economic environment, there is no winning strategy available for the left. If the left chooses to have a peaceful, respectful debate of the sort that the stereotypical well-mannered Brit would prefer, that’s great. In that case, they need to explain why it makes more sense to pile on more unsustainable debt than it does for government to live within its means. That’s an impossible task. If the left chooses petulance and anger instead, that’s great too. In this day and age where everyone has to make sacrifices, few people are going to sympathize with protesters behaving like spoiled children.
There’s no doubt that the Cameron government has the will and the votes to stay the course. Ironically, the Conservative/Liberal coalition in the UK is thus committed to spending cuts $30 billion more than the cuts that Republicans in the United States Congress promised voters, but have yet to deliver.
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