You may have difficulty believing this, but I was actually pleased to see the students demonstrating on the streets of London. No, really. I wish they had been demonstrating about something slightly more altruistic, but it was encouraging to see them.
Call me a 1970s romantic, but to me the student generation needs to be on the streets more often. When I was at university, there were demonstrations every month, some of them quite small, but some massive – I was among 300,000 who turned out in Bonn in October 1981 to protest against the threat of nuclear missiles, and a similar number turned out in London two weeks later.
I said in the general election campaign that we must stop being a society that only values adults of working age. We dismiss the fresh ideas of children as much as writing off the wisdom of the grey-haired generation. And the student generation has a role to play in challenging the orthodoxy of the establishment – you can’t take everything the students say at face value, but if students aren’t challenging those with mortgages and those in power, who is going to? It’s a measure of a vibrant society.
My problem with the recent demonstrations is not just the violence (that cannot be condoned, however much it generates news coverage), but the failure of the protesters to see the big picture. They are taking refuge in saying the Lib Dems have sold out on higher education, that they feel betrayed to have voted for us and now face higher tuition fees, and there is now an official NUS campaign aimed at ousting certain Lib Dem MPs.
When Lib Dem MPs vote for the package of measures that will see tuition fees remain in operation and at a potentially higher level than they are now, this will not be a betrayal. To see it as such is to fundamentally misunderstand coalition government.
Yes, the Lib Dems campaigned for the abolition of tuition fees for first degrees, to be brought in over six years. We did so because we believe strongly in the need for society to support a certain amount of learning beyond the age of 18. The problem was that we got 23% of the votes, so we couldn’t form a government.
Fortunately, neither of the other two parties – who said nothing about abolishing tuition fees – could form a government on their own. So we have gone into coalition with a party that got 37% of the votes. It wants to keep tuition fees and would have done so big-time if it had been in government on its own (as would Labour).
What we did was negotiate to take the edges off the package. Bolstered by the fact that lots of students voted for us, we secured three important concessions: a cap on tuition fees that was not recommended in Lord Browne’s report, a payback scheme that isn’t just a tax but goes to the university that did the student’s teaching, and a starting threshold for that payback scheme of £21,000 a year.
That is the reward for all those students who voted Lib Dem because of our promise to abolish tuition fees. With 23% of the votes, that’s quite an achievement, and it wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in government.
The waters have been slightly muddied by the fact that most Lib Dem candidates, me included, signed the NUS pledge saying we wouldn’t vote for tuition fees. The fact that those elected to parliament will now vote for the package that includes tuition fees has fuelled the ‘spectacular U-turn’ hyperbole of some journalists. But this isn’t fair.
In a mature democracy, you campaign on what you will do, and if you don’t get a majority, you form a coalition based on certain compromises. Voting for tuition fees is a Lib Dem compromise in the current coalition (and whether the Lib Dem leadership anticipated using this issue as a bargaining counter before the election is immaterial). Yes, Lib Dem MPs will hold their noses when they vote for tuition fees, but Tory MPs will hold their noses when they vote for the referendum on electoral reform. It’s all part of coalition government.
The problem is that we don’t exactly know what a majority Conservative or Labour government would have done, not just on tuition fees but on a range of other issues. That’s what people need to remember when they start blaming the Lib Dems for a whole load of things that weren’t in our manifesto.