LONDON — Tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on the British capital Saturday in a noisy but peaceful protest at a government austerity drive aimed at slashing the nation's debt.
Unions, antiwar campaigners, left-wing leaders, community groups and other activists poured down London's streets in a demonstration against reductions to public sector spending that officials are pushing through to rein in the Britain's debt, which stands at more than $1.7 trillion.
Although the austerity program has had some modest successes — the country's deficit has dropped slightly — the British economy has shrunk for three consecutive quarters amid cuts at home and economic turmoil on the continent.
Brendan Barber, whose Trades Union Congress helped organize the march, said that the message of Saturday's protest was that "austerity is simply failing."
"The government is making life desperately hard for millions of people because of pay cuts for workers, while the rich are given tax cuts," he said.
Britain borrowed $20.9 billion in September alone, and with other European countries — including next-door neighbor Ireland — struggling to make good on their debt, there is a general consensus that the British budget needs to be rebalanced.
But the right-leaning government did little to endear itself with ordinary Britons when it reduced income taxes for the country's wealthiest citizens this year. And its leadership has struggled to fight perceptions of elitism that rankle many in this class-conscious country.
On Friday, the Conservative Party's chief whip stepped down after a dispute over whether he had described officers guarding the prime minister's official residence at Downing Street as "plebs" or warned them to "learn your (expletive) place."
News of Andrew Mitchell's resignation broke just as word was getting around that Treasury Chief George Osborne had been spotted by a journalist sitting in a first-class train carriage with a second-class ticket. Osborne paid for an upgrade, but the story's humor was irresistible. Newspapers lavished coverage on what many nicknamed "The Great Train Snobbery," and Osborne's misadventure was a popular talking point at the rally, which marched through the city beneath huge red and purple balloons emblazoned with union logos.
Even opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, known for his close ties with unions, was booed when he told protesters gathered in London's Hyde Park that some cuts would have to be made one way or the other.
"It's right that we level with people," he argued. The cheers returned after he criticized what he described as "self-defeating austerity."
Jeers and booing aside, the protests were good-natured. One group of children dressed up as government workers, including a nurse and a traffic warden. Another child, dressed as a chef, held up a sign warning that Prime Minister David Cameron was "a recipe for disaster."