Cameron and Clegg’s bill might pass, but sooner or later it’s unsustainable, says Alex Gabriel.
At approximately 5.30pm this evening, the tuition fees bill will stand or fall in Parliament. It seems likely a significant number of Liberal Democrats will rebel or abstain; an improbable forty would be needed to block the legislation, a more feasible twenty-something to significantly destabilise Nick Clegg’s position. Since last I wrote for Political Promise I’ve become something of a firebrand, and in the same few hours I’ll be on foot (running, most likely) in the streets of London, in protest with however many thousand others. As with any protest, friends ask how much difference it can make – but although I think the bill will go through, the importance of going on the war path now is profound.
As with most political conflicts, much of the short term result will depend on alliances, of which David Cameron’s party has plenty. The Conservatives have the City’s big business on their side, as they do a majority of the popular press. They have an automatic ratings bonus due to exiting a long period of opposition. They have Lord Ashcroft and the Saatchi brothers, providing them with a well-oiled PR machine, and a Prime Minister whose personal rating is far higher than either of the other main leaders. Cameron’s coalition of support is more than just partisan – but then again, so is ours. The sheer breadth of participation in the anti-cuts campaigns is enough by itself to justify taking part.
Meet the people at these demonstrations. Go online. Listen to speeches. Every section of British society is there, from anarchists to statists and from Christians to queers – from public schoolboys to public sector workers and from civil disobedients to civil servants. There isn’t yet a clique I haven’t seen join in. Scots Nats and Labourites shared food with Greens at Whitehall, and Marxists walked shoulder with ex-Cleggites. Oxbridge students (for and against the NUS) talked policy with tube staff.
The new diversity of the government’s opponents is a compelling reason in itself to walk with them, and an instructive prospect at that: we’ve all taken note of the spending cuts’ depth, but it’s only in those crowds that you realise the staggering breadth of their impact. It says much about our politics, too, that the backgrounds of the placard-wavers are now so hugely varied.
Ed Miliband talks about a new generation, and the phrase bears more truth than he realises. These are people united not by age or family genetics, but by a rude and simultaneous awakening. They kept schtum under New Labour for thirteen years, all of them, consoling themselves that it was the lesser evil: that while the City went unregulated like never before, at least the NHS was being funded; that our civil liberties were eroded, but at least it kept the criminals down; that universities might be getting commercialised, but at least more people were going there in the end.
Just as it took eighteen years of Conservative rule for the wide-ranging left to turn to Blair, the vow of relative silence they took under his governments seems only to have been broken by the Tory Party’s return. The police were surprised at Millbank Tower not because of the violence itself, but because it was the first time students really acted up. Like schoolteachers, postal workers and the fire brigade, they’d shown New Labour opposition but never the bitter disillusionment which marks their demonstrations now.
Now, as Cameron puts Thatcher in the shade, we realise Blair was just the dress rehearsal. We see in the Browne Report what tuition fees would always have led to, and feel the squeeze on our wallets while Vodaphone and Barclays double their profits and avoid tax. We realise, facing the City of London police, that SOCPA mattered more than ID cards ever did. What shocked me about the Whitehall protest wasn’t seeing kettled schoolchildren punched in the face, or watching pedestrians charged by mounted police, but the sudden, sublime realisation that there might be a conceivable scenario where I’d consider attacking them.
For the first time I understood why anarchists call themselves left-wing: it isn’t that they share the right’s dismissal of the state, but that they’re now so embittered by its forces that their only solution is to rip it up desperately and start again. I’d always told myself that had I been old enough in 2005 I’d have voted for Blair shame-facedly to keep out Michael Howard – now, for me and all of those around me, a sea change was happening. Seeing all the good that compromise had done, it was universally difficult not to feel radicalised.
An entire political generation now feels it can’t give up. Whatever happens in Parliament on Thursday, Cameron is politicising an enormous cross-section of society against him; one which has woken up to its own dissatisfactions, and won’t go back to sleep for a long time. This, in the end, is why I think £9k tuition fees can’t last. Sooner or later, when Old Mother Hubbard goes to the cupboard and nothing in it is left to cut, the only way to be electable will be to pledge a change in the system, because the people taking to the streets this week will no longer be willing to accept another Blair.
Perhaps even in the short term, this government might be stopped. All the advantages Cameron has, he had in opposition but still couldn’t win outright this May. It was MyDavidCameron that whittled down his poll lead, and the Facebook-Twitter community that spread its message. The internet community, as we bloggers know, is powerful – powerful enough to compete with Lord Ashcroft and the Saatchis, and to go viral. (Call me a disgusting hack, but the time for networking is now.) It’s possible, especially if the Lib Dems leave coalition, that the right pressures could force an election prior to 2015.
I don’t think it’ll happen, though. Ed Miliband’s recent actions make clear that he’s in opposition for the long haul – those of us protesting have to be too. Like a police kettle, the conflicts now on their way will be a test of who can hold out for longest; whether marchers in London can maintain their tenacity or whether it’ll flag under persistent government and police opposition. For anybody worried by this government, over tuition fees or otherwise, setting the right tone now is vital. A strong community of anti-cutters has to arise, or else resistance to Cameron and Clegg will dissolve away as soon as it gets too cold. Things need, at least, to be more interesting than that.
Come to the capital, then, and watch what happens. The coming few years will be remembered, but they’ll be defined by the next two days.