Sunday, 5 December 2010

Into the Valley of Death?

Thursday is going to be a big day in the coalition's short history, as the debate and vote on raising university tuition fees is held. Perhaps there is a certain irony in that December 9th will be the anniversary of the first publication of the Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade.'

There may only be 57 Liberal Democrat MPs, but the 'valley of death,' if only electorally awaits them. The guns they are charging on this occasion are those of the students of the future who will be paying these fees.

As the Liberal Democrats ride headlong into the guns, the cannons left and right are constantly bombarding them. Students, and school pupils, the ones who will be hit by the fees, are protesting on the streets. Students are sitting in on university campuses, lecturers are offering them their support. University funding is being dramatically cut, and humanities subjects will receive no funding whatsoever.

However, there is also a fair amount of 'friendly fire' coming from behind. Many of the ordinary Liberal Democrat members are against this, and a number of their MPs, Bob Russell and Simon Wright have said they will vote against. But even more damaging, two of their previous commanders, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, have also indicated they will abide by the pledge they signed. These are men who have the respect of people inside and outside politics, and across all parties. They stood up for their beliefs, and didn't just rush unthinking, into the arms someone whispering sweet words in their ears.

The original charge was led by a reckless commander, looking for glory. Poor leadership was the primary cause of the brigade's demise, and so it may well be for the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg was looking for glory. The title of Deputy Prime Minister is one he wears with pride. The uniform of ministerial cars, red boxes, meetings with important international figures, he wears with a sense of entitlement, as though he had worked for them.

Yet, only a few short months ago, his career seemed so promising. His performance in the Prime Ministerial debates took people by surprise, and he especially made a connection with young people. The Liberal Democrats had long advocated free access to higher education for all, and although their policy had changed from immediate abolition of fees, to phasing out, they still had the same basic aim.

Clegg, along with many Liberal Democrat, Labour and four Conservatives candidates, pledged to vote against a rise in tuition fees. Students turned out in droves to elect Liberal Democrats MPs, yet now they feel totally betrayed. Clegg made much of this pledge, and indeed, it became a part of the party's campaign that they were attracting young people, many who would vote for the first time, into politics.

Well, he has certainly done that, though not the way he envisaged. There have been big protests on the streets of London, and other cities and towns around England (this rise does not apply to Scottish students, and the Welsh Assembly has voted to maintain fees at current levels). In fact, my own conversations with students show that many are not actually against the principle of fees in general. They accept that a contribution is inevitable these days, but believe that the trebling of fees, will greatly restrict access for those from less well off backgrounds.

What Clegg has done however, is motivate the young people of England, including school children who will, probably, face even larger increases in future, if the current government is maintained, and get them out on the streets. These are not easy protests either. They are coming as Britain enters a very cold spell. So they are not coming out just because it is easy to do so, and to enjoy the sunshine. They're facing snow and ice, as well as the kettling tactics of the police, which try to hem them into confined areas. They are out because they believe in the cause, and are prepared to put up with much to make their voices heard.

The Conservative majority of the coalition have cleverly turned the entire focus onto the Liberal Democrats. It is effigies of Clegg that are being burned, and although I do not agree with other tactics being used, such as dog mess being out through his letterbox, and it is all self-inflicted.

We've also had the preposterous position of not only Clegg, but Business Secretary Vince Cable, spinning like tops as they work out their stance on this for Thursday's vote. It now seems they have both decided to vote in favour of the rise, which at least for Cable is the only tenable position, being the man responsible for pushing it through.

Since they joined the coalition, the Liberal Democrat standing has fallen dramatically, as they stand anywhere between 9 and 14% in the polls. Next May they seem to be heading towards electoral massacre in the local and devolved elections. They may well also lose their referendum on changing the electoral system, such a change from that warm spring Saturday, when he stood before the fairer vores flash mob, pedging that he would only join a coalition with the Tories, if they gave way on a referendum. How long ago that must all seem now. When Nick Clegg was the most popular politician in Britain, to being the most hated. Harold Wilson was right that a week is a long time, but six months is now a career.

The Liberal Democrats will now decide on Thursday which way to vote. They are a fatally divided band, with those in jobs, and those who want jobs, supporting the rise. Those who want to stay in the favour of the leadership, abstaining, whilst those who still have a semblence of honiur, voting against the rise.

So as they ride into the 'valley of death' the Liberal Democrats will reflect on how it all went so badly wrong. Huge promise dashed on the ambitions of a few. How their commanders lied and prevaricated to get them on board, then threw them at the guns. Their's was not not reason why, but now they will do and die, and I leave them with a suitable epitaph, right from the pen of Tennyson;

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered


  1. This post has a feeling of a political obituary.

    I hope very much it turns out to be correct, therefore.

    Dr Shibley Rahman @shibleylondon

  2. All the world wondered, indeed. Great piece, David.

  3. They should have not joined a formal coaltion