Today students from all over the country travelled down to London to protest against the proposed raise in tuition fees. By the sounds of it the estimated 30,000 students have protested passionately and for the most part peacefully, though of course as with any big gathering there's been some trouble, which will inevitably get a disproportionate amount of media coverage. The direction of the anger is spread between both parts of the coalition, but there is a definite focus towards Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. I, like many students, especially those who voted for the Liberal Democrats in May partly because of their stance on tuition fees and the importance of higher education being affordable, feel that they have betrayed their principles and their promises with their neatly executed about turn.
There's going to be a lot of attention paid to the trouble and destruction caused by what was a minority (though from the pictures/videos a decent sized minority) of the protesters. I don't support it, it spoils the day for the thousands who wanted to protest peacefully and it gives the media and politicians something to be outraged about rather than focussing on the actual issue. However i struggle to really be annoyed at the instigators of the violence and destruction. They've done it at least partly because they're angry and that's an anger that I share. It's an anger born out of being told by wealthy politicians who never had to pay for their education that we will have to pay higher and higher fees, and face increasing debts, in a university system that is having it's funding dramatically cut to gain a degree which, in the case of many subjects doesn't actually offer particularly promising graduate opportunities. So yeah, students are angry and so we damn well should be.
That anger only intensifies when we see the very same politicians who spoke out against tuition fees, who PROMISED that there wouldn't be a rise, advocating the rise as not only necessary but fair. I saw Nick Clegg speak before the election last may, he came to De Montfort University and there was a genuine sense of hope in the crowd that he might be different, that the message he was selling was one of change and honesty. Thanks to him and the other Liberal Democrats who got on board with the Conservatives quite so eagerly, the perception that politicians are guided more by a desire for power than a desire to help the people has only intensified and become entrenched among a group of young adults who, for many of them, May 2010 was their first involvement in British politics at a national level.
I am not against the coalition in it's entirety, i actually support it as the option that was arguably the one most likely to offer stability and cohesive government after the election. Compromise is undeniably a part of coalition government and I'm sure the Liberal Democrats will do some good things while part of the coalition. But to compromise on what was to a huge swathe of your vote the flagship policy reeks of political manoeuvring and dishonesty.
I didn't go to the protests today for a number of reasons, but there are two that stand out. The second one will be explained in the second update i'll post in a bit, but the first is that deep down i don't believe any amount of protesting by students or the people in general is likely to influence government policy making. In countries like ours, where we elect someone and then sit back and hope they don't do anything too abhorrent during the 5 years in charge, i'm cynical about the likelihood of any progress being made by this protest. My belief in the power of people marching in a democratic country like England was damaged in the wake of February 2003.
On February 15th 2003 between 750,000 and 2 million people (depending on whose estimates you believe) marched in London in an anti-war protest about the imminent Iraq war. I was just starting to become politically aware and i remember watching the news that day and listening to the commentators saying it was one of the biggest public protests the UK had seen and feeling inspired to see that people cared enough to travel across the country and protest. It was democracy in action i thought, an expression of freedom of speech and a clear message to the government.
And it was a message they ignored completely. We went to war, and according to wikileaks over 100,000 people died and a country was torn apart. The masses made their voice heard more clearly and publicly than it had been in a long time and the government just went ahead and did what they wanted anyway.
I'd kept a belief in a protests being worthwhile until this autumn. What finally put paid to that idealism was looking at France. During September and October there were widespread strikes and demonstrations throughout France at a highly unpopular reform of the pension system and a rise in the pension age. Several estimates suggest that on 4 or 5 separate occasions the turnout at the marches all over the country topped 2 million. The strikes saw petrol stations run dry as oil refineries were blockaded and schools blocked off by protesting students. Trash went uncollected in Marseilles for 3 weeks and Charles De Gaulle airport almost ran out of fuel. For the most part public support stayed behind the strikes and demonstrations even as they hit the infrastructure of the country and many felt it was a comment not just on the pension reform but Sarkozy's presidency in general. By most standards it was a well attended, well organised and effective protest.
And what happened?
The reforms were passed in full and eventually people had to go back to work.
People get riled up and protest and i'm glad they do, on a different day i might quite possibly have gone along and protested too. I just struggle to think of many examples i've seen where when it comes to the big, national issues, the protests have made much difference to government policy and that's a shame, but it's a flaw in our democratic system where leaders are only accountable once every 5 years and for the rest of the time we have very little power over them.
Studying politics for the last year and a half has definitely made me more cynical and pessimistic when it comes to politicians, their actions and their intentions.
One thing to come out of the BBC's coverage which suggests something interesting could happen is a plan by students to pressure Clegg into implementing a policy he suggested during his election campaign, of voters being able to recall their MP if they feel he has committed some serious wrong doing (Clegg suggested it after the expenses scandal). The students want him to implement it so that they can then get enough signatures in his own constituency (and my home constituency) of Hallam, in Sheffield, to recall him and have another election for that seat. If this goes ahead, which i think is sadly unlikely as Clegg will probably make the decision he's unpopular enough already that it won't make much difference if he goes back on another promise, it would be a much more effective way in my opinion for voters to make it clear they don't approve of a politicians actions, thus making them surely more accountable.
Taking Clegg's seat in parliament away from him would be a brilliantly damning statement by the public of their opinion on his and his party's actions.