A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Tuition fees round-up, part 1

In Education, Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 15, 2010 at 1:13 pm

David Weber

Part 1 of 2

These articles were written as one, but split into two parts because of length. Click here for part two.

You’ll probably be pleased to know that I intend these articles to be my last on Tuition fees for a while. On the other hand, my record for sticking to pledges made in The Daily Soapbox is worse than the Liberal Democrat’s record of sticking to pledges made at election time. At least they’ve only broken one.

After a somewhat excessive and unfair rant about priorities of students marching in the recent protests, I intend to take a step back and analyse not just the overall picture behind last week’s vote, and whether it was necessary or not, but the cracks and flaws within the art-work as well. I generally think that despite last week’s vote being necessary as a policy in a time of public spending cuts, there are some less than palatable aspects to the whole debacle and one or two individual elements of the policy with which I disagree. When the government will clearly struggle to achieve the fiscal timetable it intends to and is already cutting deeper in some areas than I would like, it was the right decision to pass on some of the costs of universities to future graduates. But it is a pity that it had to approach it from such an unfortunate backdrop, and it has not got the question right on every level.

The first thing to note is the fact that a perverse situation exists where most of the protesters have the moral highground, despite the necessity of reform. There can be no question about this. Despite the fact that Nick Clegg was clearly more sensible about the issue before the election than most of his party, he not only emphasised a manifesto policy he knew not to be sound, but went to the ultimate extreme of signing a separate pledge in public, surrounded by students.

Some background about the Liberal Democrats’ political traditions is necessary to gain a nuanced understanding of this. The Liberal Democrats like to do things en masse. What better demonstrated this than the speculation that Vince Cable might actually abstain over his department’s legislation? This is somewhat ironic for a party wedded to the politics of compromise and coalition, of meeting people half-way — but we have seen ever since the coalition that there is a significant section of the party grassroots which prefers the purity of opposition politics to the practicality of government. And given the amount of time the Liberal Democrats, the Social Democrats and before it the Liberal party have spent in opposition, this is magnified to a far larger degree than in any party of government since 1931.

Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats’ volte face can only be seen, in a moral light, as betrayal. They have performed the opposite action to that which they promised their voters, many of whom only supported them because of this. This is more than a simple broken promise, it is one of the highest order in a democracy. However, it is yet another example of the fact that the British constitution works far better when it comes to government than when it comes to democracy.

And unfortunately for the beliefs of democrats, this is not an example in democracy’s favour. The pledge the Liberal Democrats signed was naive and unsustainable, but they entered into government at a time when the interests of sustainability and hard-nosed decisions demanded it. They were caught between a rock and a hard place. To abandon their pledge would have been immoral, but no less so than to stand impotently by and engineer an impotent government. Viewed in this light, in choosing to sacrifice the pledge and join government they picked the lesser of two evils.

Does this lessen the betrayal towards many students, and from many students’ point of view? Not at all. The simple fact is that the Liberal Democrats broke their manifesto promise, and as such they deserve to be punished at the next election. Whether or not they should be is another matter. The British system of democratic government does not often serve the interests of justice well, contrary to the regular claims of its supporters. The 2005 election, in an ideal world and an ideal system, would have seen Labour more comprehensively punished for the Iraq War, but other considerations proved weightier on polling day. The 1992 election would, in an ideal world, have seen the support attained by John Major garner comparative rewards, but instead his party suffered a humiliating reduction in the size of its majority. Elections are often determined by a rag-bag cocktail of issues, which are often quite trivial compared to the verdict they deliver.

So much, then, for the Liberal Democrats’ shocking betrayal. History may attach little importance to it when judging their record in government. Such is politics. The next important moral issue which requires attention is the conduct of the Conservative and Labour parties during the election. Though these fine parties made no rash promises to renege on afterwards, in certain ways their conduct was more insidious than that of the Liberal Democrats’ recent betrayal. It is a fact that for an opposition party, the Conservatives kept surprisingly quiet about the Browne review, and its likely recommendation of higher fees.

This isn’t to say the the Conservative party should have come out against higher fees. But it could have built support for them, rather than merely using the Browne review as an excuse not to talk about it (“we will … consider carefully the results of Lord Browne’s review into the future of higher education funding”). In “considering carefully”, it colluded with the Labour party, by accident or design, to limit discussion and decrease choice on the issue at the ballot box. Such a course of action was, if intentional, clearly self-interested. Labour’s actions fare worse. Despite setting up a review clearly loaded, as shown by polarii’s recent article, to recommend higher fees, it refused to engage in discussion of the issue — then miraculously came out against the Browne review after the election.

So like MPs expenses, in many ways this is a ‘plague on all your houses’ issue, in spite of the visibility of the Liberal Democrats’ betrayal.

Part Two

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  1. […] articles were written as one, but split into two parts because of length. Click here for part […]

  2. Hi David

    Speaking as a 2010 Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate I believe that Nick Clegg inflicted deep damage to Lib Dem credibility on 9th December 2010 with the tuition fees vote.

    I was in Parliament Square that day and later in the Houses of Parliament for a meeting, so I saw things close up from both sides of the barricades!

    See http://shakinguppolitics.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/nick-clegg-does-deep-damage-to-lib-dems-as-he-pushes-through-his-savage-cuts-and-trebles-tuition-fees/

    Mike Simpson

    • Hi Mike,

      I don’t doubt that Nick Clegg has inflicted deep damage to Lib Dem credibility — of a kind. He has shown up the limits of the party’s claims to being prepared for power, which it made much of in the lead-up to the election (for example the claim of having the best costed manifesto).

      On the other hand, he has tested the ability of the Liberal Democrats to behave credibility in power, and emerged reasonably well, given the high profile nature of the pledge. This is of course power trumping principle, yet the principle was, I feel, something of a foolish one — there have to be higher priority ‘wins’ for the Liberal Democrats than over tuition fees, where they had an expensive policy which would have necessitated further cuts elsewhere, assuming that they stuck to the policy of deficit reduction.

      For example, I suspect that it is far more important that they make progress in getting rid of the arbitrary cut in housing benefit for the long-term unemployed. I hope they are also looking with alarm at the legal aid cuts, one of which will remove one of the only ways someone can challenge a decision to withdraw benefits.

      I am sympathetic to the Liberal Democrats, and I appreciate that their decisions in government have probably done the interests of their party a lot of harm. If it’s any consolation, the party is only viewed in the same way the other two parties of government are now — which was bound to happen sooner or later. It is a pity it happened in quite so shocking a way, but it is also worth bearing in mind that an accumulation of small, less high profile betrayals, which the other two parties of government are well schooled in, is no better.

      David

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