I’m now on to my second big political disappointment in five years. The first was with the radical left. The second is with the unradical centre.
Back in 2005 I went up to Scotland for the Gleneagles demonstrations and came back invoking plagues on both their houses. I saw the police deliberately provoking protestors, kettling, hiding their identifying numbers, intimidating people, afraid to let the protest come anywhere near the people at which it was aimed – but I also saw protestors staging sit-ins in the road in the middle of marches, leaving people further back standing around for hours; and protestors blockading roads that the police had already closed, preventing coaches full of other protestors getting through. Plans were blasted all over the internet and yet people expressed surprise that the police always seemed to be one step ahead of them. They seemed more interested in making sure that everyone knew how outraged they were about everything than in actually finding an effective way of fighting for change.
So I came back from Scotland on the day the bombs went off in London (not a good day to travel) and went back to my books. Shortly afterwards I accidentally started going out with a Lib Dem and met a lot of other nice ones as a result – people whose politics came quite close to my own. Since Labour swerved up on to the central reservation I thought the LDs might be taking over the left ground. I kept my distance, as temperamentally I’m not really a joiner-inner of things, but I was happy to vote Lib Dem: the luxury of being a minor party is idealism, and I liked a lot of the ideals: free higher education, no ID cards, no war.
Then the crazy election we had flung the LDs into the unenviable position of Tory Fig Leaf. I went along with that because I didn’t see any alternative – Labour clearly weren’t that interested in a coalition and a Tory minority government would only have meant another election, and as both Labour and the Lib Dems ran out of money at the last, another one would have got the Tories in with a majority. (Here are the different parties’ finances at the time.)
I wasn’t expecting that the Lib Dems would throw their ideals out of the window. I think this new deal on tuition fees is a lot fairer than things we’ve had in the past, but it doesn’t negate the fact that the LDs claimed to be against the principle of students paying for their education. Their argument – ‘we didn’t win the election, so we have to go along with this’ is false logic. If that’s what you believe, it shouldn’t change just because you haven’t won an election.
The fundamental thing that none of the parties address is that it was a stupid idea of Labour to say 50% of school leavers should go to university. This is clearly ridiculous. University should be for academic subjects, and for those bits of vocational training like medicine or architecture that have always been delivered in this way. It was unbelievably arrogant of Labour to suggest that degrees make people more valuable; they don’t. Skills make people valuable, and a lot of skills can and should be learned in work, in apprenticeships and day-release schemes, not on expensive, unsuitable university courses. The simple rules of scarcity dictate that if you increase the number of people going to university you devalue the degrees they get at the end of it. I find it completely breathtaking that the government failed to see that an increase in students would just lead to a glut of graduates in the job market.
Because we have too many students, the government cannot pay for them all to go to university. The students have to pay for themselves, and because there are more of them, the degrees they incur debt to attain are devalued. People who choose not to get into debt by going to university are made to feel less valuable in comparison, which is also nonsense, as there are many many high-paid, worthwhile and enormously valuable careers that simply don’t need a Bachelor of Arts qualification. It creates class boundaries by dividing people into have-degrees and have-nots. University should be just one of many options for school leavers looking to better themselves.
But by far the most damaging and insiduous effect of making students pay for their education is that it normalises debt. People my age and younger now think it is perfectly normal to have at least ten or fifteen grand sitting over their heads, and it makes you cavalier about taking on more debt. Why not run up a credit card or two, when you’ve already got three years of fees to pay for? What’s the difference? The government is now saying most people will never pay off these debts, as though this is a good thing that people will live their whole lives in debt. Is that a healthy way to live? How would that make you feel about yourself?
The one good thing about all this is that it seems to have radicalised a whole generation. I remember going to vote while I was at university at the on-campus polling station, only to find that I was the second person to have bothered doing so by two in the afternoon. A lot of my friends didn’t vote and had no political opinions whatsoever. Now we see the brilliant sight of students disrupting the Turner Prize award ceremony, and they’re occupying everything, and out on the streets everywhere. This can only be a good thing for democracy. My old politics tutor at Bath always used to say that voter apathy is the first step towards totalitarianism; it doesn’t seem to be a problem now.
I feel slightly uncomfortable about joining them as I don’t really think half of them should be students anyway. It would feel hypocritical of me to march alongside people when for a lot of them I honestly don’t think their best interests are served by going to university. We’ve been sold a false promise that a degree is the answer to all things in this society. That’s bollocks. Education is the answer, and opportunities: but these should come in many different forms, and without life-long, debt-filled strings attached.