Saturday, December 11, 2010

Anarchy in the UK? This is not the country Cameron wants to lead

It is a moot point whether Thursday's protests over the government's decision to raise universities tuition fees to £9,000 amounted to the worst civil disturbances since the poll tax riots of 1990.

One should not forget that the fuel protests of autumn 2000 came close to bringing the country to a standstill - but they were by and large peaceful.

Measured purely in terms of street violence, this week's demonstrations almost certainly constituted the biggest outpouring of public anger seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher.

Should that be a warning sign to David Cameron and his coalition? Undoubtedly so.

The bare facts of the matter are that the government won the Commons vote on lifting the cap on fees by a majority of 21, down from its usual majority of 83.

While 28 Liberal Democrat MPs voted in support of the move, 21 defied the party leadership, including former leaders Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell and a possible future leader, Tim Farron.

Meanwhile six Tory MPs also voted against the measure, including the former leadership contender David Davis who, like Mr Farron, appears to be positioning himself for the coalition's eventual collapse.

But while the government won the vote, the question is whether in doing so it lost the argument, as well control of the streets.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the demonstrators have over-reached themselves, and that the ugliness of some of Thursday's scenes will turn the wider public against the students' cause.

In the short-term, it will have focused attention less on the fees issue than the question of whether security arrangements for the demo were even half way adequate.

But the debate over tuition fees is far from over. The House of Lords will certainly have a say on the matter, and there will have to be further legislation over the level and speed at which the fees are paid back.

That in turn is bound to lead to further rebellions which, if successful, could ultimately force the government to unpick the entire scheme.

So where does it leave the coalition? Well, firstly, what about the Lib Dems.

Their hope was that by getting the fees vote out of the way early on, it would enable them to move the political agenda onto other areas in which they are on firmer ground, such as political reform.

I wonder, however, whether memories will fade that easily, and whether we have not witnessed a seminal moment in terms of public perceptions of the third party.

It could well be that this will go down as the point at which the public stopped seeing the Lib Dems as a party of principle and started to see them as their opponents have always seem them – a bunch of opportunists who would break any promise for a taste of power.

Secondly, where do this week's events leave Mr Cameron? Despite his own protestations last week that he would "rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of Brown," he is not the Iron Lady.

His style is consensual rather than confrontational. Unlike his illustrious predecessor, he has no wish to see his premiership consumed by battles against the 'enemy within.'

Within weeks of those poll tax riots in the autumn of 1990, the Prime Minister had gone, albeit over a combination of that and other issues.

That is not going to happen to Mr Cameron just yet. But in his desire to lead a broadly united country, he won't want to see too many more weeks like this one.

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Oli Parker said...

Good post. Although I thought the most interesting point about the student riots was that the police did so little. Their interventions seemed to be limited to keeping people 'kettled', whilst standing by and watching the damage being done. Why? One can only assume that 'trial by media' would be an instant pronouncement of guilt on their behalf, should they be seen as anything other than completely benign. Indeed, the UK reporting on the events focussed far more heavily on the student casualties' than on the police numbers injured; reading news reports from abroad seem to give a somewhat different view to that portrayed in the UK media. I wonder why?

As far as the Lib Dems voting is concerned, it looks like they are still trying to find a fence wide enough to accomodate them all. Witness Vince's pathetic shilly-shallying over which way to vote. But then, I guess that is the consequence of a coalition such as we have. It means the Lib Dems (the party that came third in the last election - and pretty much every election they have taken part in) have some people actually taking notice of their point of view!

Having said all that, I do wonder how much these riots were about student fees, and how much they were about the fact that Labour didn't win the election, and that the free ride the benefit system offered is now coming to a halt.


Joe Otten said...

You know full well Paul that people who will do anything for power join Labour or the Conservatives.