LONDON – Tens of thousands of demonstrators whistled, chanted, drummed and marched their way through the heart of London on Saturday to protest massive government spending cuts that threaten to leave almost no part of British society untouched.
It was one of the biggest public demonstrations in Britain since 2003, when antiwar rallies were held across the country before the invasion of Iraq. Organizers said up to 500,000 people participated in the march, whose carnival-like atmosphere was briefly marred by black-clad anarchists who smashed a few shop windows, flung paint bombs and attacked luxury icons such as the Ritz Hotel.
The protesters gathered here from all corners of Britain to express their outrage over a whopping $130 billion in cutbacks that the government insists are necessary to tame a runaway budget deficit. The retrenchment is expected to result in a radical shakeup of bedrock social services such as welfare and healthcare and in the elimination of nearly half a million public-sector jobs.
"It's our right to march and to say we don't accept any of this," said Corinne Drummond, 37, a nurse from East London who joined several colleagues for the demonstration, which began in the morning and lasted for hours.
On a gray and occasionally drizzly spring day, a huge of column of protesters snaked its way along some of London's best-known streets, past landmarks such as Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and through Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus.
They were a motley crowd of civil servants, environmentalists, prison officers, academics, feminists and young parents with toddlers on their shoulders. "Don't believe in the deficit," some placards exhorted, while other signs and T-shirts called for a "general strike now" and exhorted Britons to "make tea, not war."
In Hyde Park, the leader of the opposition Labor Party ridiculed Prime Minister David Cameron's vision of a "Big Society" full of citizen volunteers who plug the holes left by cuts in government spending.
"You wanted to create a Big Society. This is the Big Society, the big society united against what your government is doing to our country," Ed Miliband said in a speech that invoked Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil rights movement. "We stand today not for the minority. We stand today for the mainstream majority of Britain."
The Labor Party, which was kicked out by voters in May after 13 years in power, acknowledges that some cuts are unavoidable to shrink a deficit built up largely under its watch. But it says the scale and pace of the austerity plan put forward by the Conservative Party-led government will strangle Britain's fledgling economic recovery and hurt the most vulnerable members of society.
Effects of the belt-tightening will begin to be felt more acutely next month, when libraries start closing down, youth programs disappear, social workers get laid off and fewer buses ply the streets. In the northern city of Manchester, police are bracing for the elimination of nearly 3,000 jobs – a quarter of the department's workforce.
Analysts say the spending cuts could change the fabric of British society in a way not seen since the free-enterprise revolution of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
"It's changing the whole ethos of everything," said nurse Rikke Albert, 37. "That's not what I signed up for when I did my training."