Britons protest austerity measures

2011-03-26 16:00

London - Tens of thousands of protesters kicked off a march through London on Saturday in a demonstration against the government's harsh austerity measures, as police deployed in large numbers amid fears of violence.

Huge crowds of demonstrators marcedh along the banks of the river Thames in the British capital to oppose spending cuts introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to tackle a record deficit.

Trade unions have said more than 100 000 demonstrators are expected to attend, but Len McCluskey, head of the Unite union, predicted the march would exceed expectations.

"Turnout is past our wildest dreams," he told AFP, adding that it could be "the biggest protest that the union movement has seen in London in a generation".

Pubic sector workers, pensioners and students were out on the streets for Saturday's "March for the Alternative", brandishing banners reading "Don't Break Britain", "No to Cuts" and "Defend Our Public Services".

Many families with children were among the protesters and the air was filled with the distinctive low-pitched bellow of the vuvuzela.

Steel bands, choirs and dancers also joined the march, giving a carnival atmosphere to the mass demonstration.

Scotland Yard has deployed around 4 500 officers, mindful of several huge student protests against plans to triple university tuition fees that turned violent late last year.

Cuts of £81bn over five years

Saturday's march was to pass the Houses of Parliament and Prime Minister David Cameron's Downing Street residence before ending in a rally in Hyde Park to be addressed by opposition Labour party leader Ed Miliband.

After coming to power in May, the coalition announced cuts worth £81bn over five years in order to slash a record public deficit it blames on the previous Labour government.

Dave Prentis, head of the public sector union Unison, hailed the turnout which he said was "absolutely enormous and showed the anger of ordinary working people at the government's cuts".

Speaking before the march set off, Education Minister Michael Gove insisted that the protests would not force a change in government strategy.

"Of course people will feel a sense of disquiet, in some cases anger, at what they see happening," he told BBC radio.

"But the difficulty we have as the government inheriting a terrible economic mess, is that we have to take steps to bring the public finances back into balance."

British newspaper reports said between 250 000 and 300 000 were expected, which would make it the largest protest in the capital since around one million people marched against the Iraq war in February 2003.

Barber said the unions would deploy teams of stewards to ensure a peaceful rally because they wanted "nothing to distract" from their message.

The officer in charge of policing the march, Commander Bob Broadhurst, said he hoped for minimal use of the controversial tactic of "kettling" protesters by keeping them confined in small areas.

The cuts announced involve most government departments, with the loss of 300 000 public service jobs and pay freezes for civil servants.

Several student demonstrations descended into violence last year, with one culminating in protesters damaging the car carrying heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles and his wife Camilla.

The latest march takes place just days after finance minister George Osborne delivered his annual budget on Wednesday. He had already announced the cuts via an emergency budget and spending review last year.

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