Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA

An anti-austerity rebellion ramps up in the UK

The British are taking to the streets to protest new government’s social welfare cuts

GLASGOW, Scotland — In May, Sarah Robertson was called to her local welfare office in Glasgow for what she assumed would be a routine claimant compliance interview. But when she arrived, she was questioned by a team of welfare officers about the nature of her relationship with her female flatmate.

“When you’re cohabiting with a partner, you can’t claim as much in benefits,” Robertson, 34, said. “So they were trying to find out if I was concealing a lesbian relationship. The whole thing was very intrusive.”

A month earlier, Robertson — who, despite working two part-time jobs, relies on state support to help cover expenses — was told that her benefit payments would be suspended if she left Glasgow in order to visit her terminally ill father in England.

“You have to tell the job center if you’re going to leave town for more than 24 hours, and you only get so much time away … I had already spent a lot of time with my family down south, so they debarred me from going,” she said. She requested her real name not be used, out of a fear of retribution for speaking about her benefits.

In austerity Britain, her story is far from unique. Five years of fiscal tightening have piled pressure on public services across the U.K., and with the country’s social security system bearing the brunt of spending cuts, welfare claimants have faced ever closer scrutiny and oversight.

On Saturday tens of thousands of people will march through London and Glasgow to demand an end to austerity and increases in spending and investment.

The protest in London has been organized by the People’s Assembly, a left-wing campaign group that eschews formal political party ties. Founded in 2013, the Assembly has staged rallies and conferences — often at short notice and with few resources — in cities throughout Britain, from Sheffield and Manchester in the north to Brighton in the south.

With the Conservative Party’s strong general election victory on May 7, the cutbacks are set to intensify. In an effort to eliminate Britain’s 75 billion pound ($119 billion) deficit, Tory Chancellor George Osborne has committed to $50 billion worth of savings over the next three years, roughly one-third of which will come from the welfare budget.

During the last Parliament, the Labour Party, led by Ed Miliband, provided a degree of opposition to the the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government. But in the aftermath of May’s election defeat — and Miliband’s resignation — Labour has retreated into internal bloodletting, as candidates to replace Miliband vie with one another to distance themselves from his left-leaning policy platform.

Labour’s preoccupation with finding a new leader, combined with its putative drift to the right, has created a vacuum in British politics that could yet be filled by a burgeoning grass-roots revolt against Tory cuts.

Announcing the June 20 event at a press conference earlier this month, Charlotte Church, a former teenage opera star turned prominent Assembly supporter and anti-austerity campaigner, delivered an impassioned defense of Britain’s welfare state.

“The welfare state is everything,” she said. “It’s our fire service, it’s our [National Health Service], our education, our travel, everything we have, and we will all be affected by these cuts … As soon as people realize the extent of [the cuts], I think there will be a lot of anger and a lot of discontent.”

Some of that anger has already surfaced — and been used to political effect — at the local level.

In 2013, 25,000 people marched in Lewisham, in southeastern London, against the attempted downgrading of a local hospital by Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. He wanted to cut maternity, accident and emergency and intensive care services, forcing Lewisham residents to rely on a separate facility 5 miles away. But a concerted push from residents’ groups, supported by organizations like the People’s Assembly and U.K. Uncut, secured a judicial review and eventual reversal of Hunt’s decision.

‘The welfare state is everything. It’s our fire service, it’s our [National Health Service], our education, our travel, everything we have, and we will all be affected by these cuts … As soon as people realize the extent of [the cuts], I think there will be a lot of anger and a lot of discontent.’

Charlotte Church

anti-austerity campaigner

In Scotland the political landscape is different. The Scottish National Party (SNP) won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in the general election, eviscerating Labour in its once rock-solid urban heartlands, leaving it, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats with just one Scottish MP each.

The SNP’s victory was widely seen as an endorsement of nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon’s anti-austerity stance. But the party also benefited from a wave of grass-roots enthusiasm whipped up during last year’s referendum on independence from the U.K. — which generated unprecedented levels of political engagement among previously apathetic sections of Scottish society. At 71 percent, general election turnout in Scotland was some 5 points higher than in Britain at large and nearly 10 points higher than during the last general election in 2010.

On Saturday a coalition of trade unionists, radical pro-independence campaigners and SNP supporters will lead the rally in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest and poorest city.

“We expect George Square [in central Glasgow] to be packed,” said Stephen Boyd, the assistant secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, which represents more than 600,000 Scottish workers and is one of the main sponsors of the event. “The rally will reflect the significant anger in Scotland at Tory plans to widen and deepen austerity.”

“With the Tories having achieved an overall majority at Westminster,” he said, “it is essential that progressive forces in Scotland work together more closely than ever before to counter this unnecessary attack on society’s most vulnerable people.”

In addition to new community-led initiatives, the movement against austerity has been given fresh impetus by a series of criticisms leveled by economists and international institutions at U.K. government cuts.


In April, the Centre for Macroeconomics at the University of Cambridge conducted a survey of 33 leading economics experts and found that two-thirds of them opposed the Tories’ fiscal policies. On June 3, the International Monetary Fund, which previously supported the Conservatives’ austerity agenda, published a report arguing that the U.K. may, in the long term, be better off living with high levels of national debt than furiously slashing public expenditure.

“The economic case against austerity is overwhelming, and the clear majority of economists agree,” said James Meadway, a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation, a London-based think tank. “Even the last government recognized it. Despite their rhetoric, they eased off on austerity measures in the run-up to the general election.”

“The reason the Tories are pursuing austerity again now is partly ideological,” he said. “This is a government committed to a small state, come what may. [Prime Minister] David Cameron has even spoken of the need for permanent austerity.”

The prospect of permanent austerity and the weakness of parliamentary opposition to it are galvanizing activists and campaigners across the U.K. This Saturday, three weeks before Osborne details the next round of spending reductions in an emergency budget on July 8, those campaigners will be out in force on Britain’s streets, demanding the government reconsider its approach to fiscal reform.

But for people like Robertson, who grapple daily with the effects of Conservative welfare cuts, a change of direction can’t come soon enough.

“Since the Tories took power, there’s been a change in tone,” she said. “They [welfare officers] might have been a bit incompetent in the past, but they weren’t actively out to get you. That’s the only way I can describe it now — it feels like they are actively out to get you.”

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