The days of student protest ain't what they used to be.
I'm no stranger to direct action. In 1984 I took an active part in the occupation of Portsmouth Polytechnic (I was also in Trafalgar Square during the Poll Tax Riots, but that's another story!) The action was over the introduction of non-refundable deposit for breakages, charging for coursework notes and an above inflation increase in accommodation charges. You may laugh at it now, but it was a big deal then and we occupied key Polytechnic buildings as part of our campaign. Not to close them but to keep them open!
We had heard that the vice-president had plans to shut the place down completely if we occupied their administration offices so we occupied all the key buildings and lecture halls which whilst they remained occupied could not be locked.
When they threatened (in an attempt to alienate the unions and stop students completing coursework) to shut down the ICL mainframe, I reminded them that I'd done my industrial training at ICL and could actually do a checkpoint restart on a P series 2960 which at the time was a black art involving a ferret and eye of newt. A truce between the Poly with the unions meant that I could spend the rest of the occupation running the telephone exchange which in the days before mobile phones allowed us to keep one step ahead of the authorities. Eventually the Poly obtained a High Court Summons which brought it to an end.
After a suitable gap to save face and a charge of £50,000 to the Students Union for the breakage of two ashtrays the conditions were rolled back and a victory of sorts claimed by both sides. What characterised it though was our Student Union president was a Liberal not a crazed Socialist Worker nutter (our joke was they were neither socialist or workers!) and we were disciplined and did everything to keep public sympathy on our side.
The tragedy of the tuition fees protests is that it will only end one way - with tears and recriminations. There is no achievable objective, no get out clause for the protesters and no face saving position on offer from the protagonists. You need all for a successful campaign.
I have to admit that on my list of political priorities, student tuition fees are not up in my top ten. Don't get me wrong, I am against the whole idea of charging students to do their first degree and it would make my top twenty, but really, it's not what gets me up in the morning and pops into my head when I go through the to-do list of wrongs to be righted that day.
The problem with many Lib Dem supporters is that they've allied themselves to the rhetoric of the playground, talking of 'treachery' or 'back-stabbing'. They have left themselves no-where to turn because if they now take back that sort of language they themselves are traitors to their own cause. Oh, the irony!
It is of course nothing of the sort. Lib Dems in the coalition are no more guilty of treachery than is a parent who has promised a petulant teenager an X-box Kinetic for Christmas, then finds themselves having to explain to their child that they've just been made redundant and they won't be able to buy it after all. When to tell the children that there is no Santa Claus it one of the difficult things about parenthood. Telling your own supporters there's is no money because Labour spent it all is another. Everyone has to grow up and face the real world at some point. What we are seeing play out are the teenage tantrums and the inevitable running up the stairs screaming "I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!" whilst the family are trying to work out how to afford the food bill.
I have no sympathy for any of the MPs or Parliamentary candidates whining now who were either too naive or stupid enough to sign up to a pledge that took no account of whether Lib Dems would be in a position to deliver on that promise. The more intelligent recognised post election what was going to happen and concentrated on mitigating the disaster of implementing Labour's Browne report unaltered. We only have 57 MPs and the changes as the result of Lib Dem pressure has at least resulted in the proposals being labelled "progressive" by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. It is still Lib Dem policy to scrap them but the weeping and wailing by some activists shows that even members of my own party do not understand the difference between coalition and majority government. You have to do things you don't like to get the things you do. If you don't like it, campaign for a majority Lib Dem government instead of bleating about betrayal or leave the party.
The fundamental problem is that University is no longer a place where one goes to advance one's education. It was turned by Labour into a sausage factory for the young. One of the most evil works of genius perpetuated by the last Labour govenment was the sleight of hand that not only removed hundreds of thousands of young people from the unemployment figures but also got them to pay for the privilege themselves. Under Labour students were forced to rack up debts of £20,000 for the right to sign on for a £16,000 a year job as a temp when they finished their degree.
This is not helped by a generation of politicos who in the words of Yeah Yeah Noh have gone to "University straight from nursery" and who have lost touch with what's important to ordinary people. It might play out well in The Guardian's "Comment is Free" but in the real world most people don't give a rat's-arse about students. I know with the self-importance of youth many of them won't like to hear that, but it's true. Deal with it. Try knocking on a door in Coley Park and whine on about how unfair tuition fees are if you don't believe it.
There is no right to a free education, anymore than there is a right to a free NHS. We all pay for the NHS in one way or another. In some areas, such as prescriptions, eye tests or dentistry most people already do pay.
If it really does increase earnings then the state should put its money where its mouth is as it will reap the benefits from increased tax receipts. The problem arises when the tax collected from those increased earnings does not keep pace with the cost of providing that education. That happens when students leave university and take up jobs that can be done by less educated students. This rush to get people off the job figures has created job inflation where a degree is an entry level qualification for office filing jobs. And no-one wants to talk about the elephant in the room, just how many Politics with History students and Media Studies graduates does the country need?
Yet, the Labour position on tuition fees is a joke. They introduced them. They doubled them. They were going to put them up to £5,000 anyway and it was their Browne (sic) report that recommended removing the cap not the coalition. Labour students are behaving in a manner not inconsistent with prostitution, as in:
"Would you have sex with me for £1m?" "Yes"
"Would you have sex with me for £10?" "No. What sort of woman do you think I am?"
"We know what sort of woman you are. We're just haggling on the price."
That's Labour's position on tuition fees - merely haggling over the price. I'm a Lib Dem, I don't believe in tuition fees and would scrap them tomorrow if I was incharge. The way to acheive that is to ensure that we have a Lib Dem government. The simple truth is that Labour backs tuition fees 100% and it was Labour who forced students into this debt mountain in the first place. Labour have no solutions.
Baudelaire said this about the situation:
The greatest trick nuLabour ever pulled was to convince the young they never existed.