By Andrew Williams
The Tory-led government has already responded to the emergence of a significant wave of resistance to the start of its assault on public services with threats to the right to protest. In response to the wave of student protests it has raised the potential of using water cannon against demonstrations and called for even tougher police tactics. It has justified this by claiming it is a majority of the protesters that are violent, and therefore all protesters must be treated as presenting a threat to breach the peace. Such claims also de-legitimise protest and deter participation in future demonstrations through fear of violence from the police.
Over a period of just four weeks student demonstrations in London against the increases to university tuition fees mobilised tens of thousands of young people. While on this occasion the protests could not threaten the government’s resolve to increase tuition fees, the turn in situation that this new militancy marks, raises the prospect of further resistance to the forthcoming assaults on living standards.
The government is concerned that this upturn in class struggle does not gain momentum, as it has only just embarked on implementing its austerity offensive. The VAT rise and a programme of years of cuts are yet to unfold. The coming assault will attack the living standards of the majority of the population, not just students. Hence the determined effort by the Tories to de-legitimise and deter expressions of opposition to their policies, by demonising peaceful protestors and coercing the protest movement off the streets through tactics like prolonged kettling.
Following the November 10th NUS-UCU called demonstration, whose size and militancy took the government by surprise, Tory politicians, most notably Home Secretary Theresa May and London Mayor Boris Johnson, pushed for increasingly confrontational police tactics to be adopted against the mainly peaceful protests. Subsequent demonstrations saw extensive use of “kettling”, where protestors were confined behind police lines for hours (in falling temperatures), and an increasing use of violence to intimidate and provoke. Police horses have charged at crowds of people and protestors were assaulted with truncheons, resulting in injuries with one person requiring brain surgery. In a further shocking case, widely circulated on youtube, Jody McIntyre was attacked while in his wheel chair.
However, rather than retreat from the anger these tactics have provoked, the Tories are talking up the possibility of even more aggressive policing. The use of water canon against demonstrators has been openly discussed as reported on here and here. The police have admitted ordering two such water cannon from the police in the North of Ireland. At the same time it is reported that senior police officers are considering asking the home secretary to ban forthcoming marches.
The serious suggestion that water cannon might be used, given the very profound injuries such equipment can inflict, is an indication of the degree to which the Tories have been rattled by such strong resistance so early in their austerity programme.
Continued resistance is likely to be met with increasingly calls for a tougher crackdown on protests, limits on the right to strike, and further strengthening of police tactics against demonstrators. The Tories’ attachment to a ‘small state’ does not apply to its apparatuses of repression!