Student fees article Heffer Column Daily Telegraph 7 Dec 2010
A Liberal MP, elected in the Liberal landslide of 1906, which also changed the face of British politics, wrote
“The people in between
Looked underdone and harassed
And out of place and mean
And horribly embarrassed.”
Hilaire Belloc was probably not describing the eternal difficulties of trying to occupy the center ground in British politics. But if he had been, he couldn’t have done it better, as my Lib Dem colleagues are finding to their discomfort.
Having said we believe in partnership politics we Liberal Democrats now have to show it can work. And in the process, wrestle with the fact that this is terra nova for us all. We are all having to invent new ways of doing things. We are all stumbling a bit in the dark.
This is difficult enough for those inside the coalition. Much more so for those reporting on it from outside, or trying to change the Government’s mind by exercising their democratic rights on the streets.
This is not going to be a smooth process or an easy one. There are going to be tough passages and inelegant moments. And, as on tuition fees at the moment, it is not always going to be a pretty sight. It was Bismarck who said “those who love sausages and respect the law, should take care not to watch either of them being made”. It turns out to apply – and in spades – to coalition politics, too.
Being the leader of a party in coalition is arguably the most difficult job in politics; you have to succeed in two key tasks ; holding the coalition together – and holding your party together at the same time. And this job is even more difficult if you happen to be the leader of the smaller party – then you get blamed for everything, as Nick Clegg is finding, as his opponents ordure is dumped upon his head (or, more literally, put through his letter box). It’s all becoming a bit French, with the Prime Minister taking the place of the French President hovering above the grubby scene with elegance and detachment. And the poor Deputy Prime Minister, like the French PM, taking the can for everything.
I think the last Liberal leader to have his effigy burnt in Whitehall, was Gladstone at the time of the murder of General Gordon. But I remember, myself being the target of quite a lot of abuse, albeit of a politer kind, when I argued that the right of abode should be given to Hong Kong passport holders; that a penny should be put on income tax for education; that we had to vote with a hated Conservative Government for the Maastricht Treaty and our European principles; that there should be intervention in the Bosnian war. So I know a little (a very little in comparison) what it is like.
I think Nick Clegg is dealing with the present situation with wisdom, skill, courage and an almost unbelievable degree of grace under fire.
He has recognised that, when it comes to holding his party together on this most difficult of issues, the process is as important as the outcome. He has listened (almost too much) to the views of his colleagues and, while stating his preference for voting for the student fee proposal, has kept the process open, even against derision and disbelief, until he is satisfied all the voices have been heard. The phrase “we agree to disagree” may have neither weight nor traction for those in our commentariat who like their politics instant, brutal and preferably bloody. But it is nevertheless one of the key phrases that lies at the heart of the British democratic tradition. And it is what the new politics of partnership has to learn if it is to have any chance of success.
I do not believe it likely that all Liberal Democrats will vote in the same lobby on student fees on Thursday. But then, I never have. Perhaps I wish it were otherwise. But I knew it never would be. And, however much they pretend to shock and scandal at their supposed discovery of this obvious fact, anyone worth their salt as a commentator on British politics should have known that, too.
Nick Clegg’s task has not been to seek to impose his will on his colleagues by coercion, as some seem to demand. That would never have worked. These are Liberal Democrats, who think for themselves, thank God. His achievement has been to bring them through this, united as a team, even if they cannot be united in the lobbies. To disagree without rancour.
Now, be honest, when, in our recent politics, did you see that before?
I admire him for this. I am pretty sure I couldn’t have done it half as well. And that’s good news for the Coalition, for the new politics of partnership and for strong government at a time of crisis.
There are some in and out of the Westminster village – and some more on the streets of our cities – who believe that the Liberal Democrats are the weakest link in this coalition, and think that, if they force us out, they can bring it all down. We aren’t and they won’t.
Whatever happens on Thursday, I don’t believe our Party unity will be weaker – it may, indeed even be stronger. That’s Nick Clegg’s achievement. And it’s a very big one.
The dividend for this will not be felt this month, next year, or even in the next two or three years. It will be felt at the next election. If by then, we have held our nerve, stuck to our guns and delivered good government at time of crisis, then British politics will have been changed for ever and the Lib Dems will be beneficiaries, not losers.
As for the substance of Thursday’s vote, that seems pretty simple to me.
The Lib Dems promised at the election, that if there was a Liberal Democrat Government we would get rid of tuition fees. But there isn’t a Liberal Democrat Government. So we had to negotiate an agreement with another Party. And its that agreement, subsequently endorsed by both the Parliamentary Party and the Party Conference, which we now have to honour.
We really would be a laughing stock – and deserve to be – if, having signed that agreement and internally endorsed it, we now run away from it.
All the more so given the merits of the policy itself.
There are three groups of stakeholders here: universities, taxpayers and graduates.
Universities will be better off; with revenues secured, our newer universities can plan ahead, confident of survival, while our elite universities will be stronger to compete in the global market place.
Taxpayers will be better off – as private payment increases, so the burden on the public purse decreases.
And graduates will be better off – particularly those on low earnings. With the threshold at which repayments start increased by £6,000, low earners will repay less, while those from the poorest households – those eligible for free school meals – will be assisted by our pupil premium and then get up to two years at university without any fees at all.
Sounds a pretty good deal to me.
Though, of course, as always, I respect the positions of my colleagues who don’t agree. But, Hilaire Belloc’s spirit please note, I do not intend to look “horribly embarrassed” about it.