UK: A cri­sis of le­git­i­macy for govt

In­form­ing stu­dents that they are not liv­ing in the real world, Clegg has con­veyed the im­pres­sion of a testy school­mas­ter con­fronted by a re­cal­ci­trant class.

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - Neil Berry

Dur­ing the last few weeks the de­mo­niza­tion of Bri­tain's deputy prime min­is­ter, Lib­eral Demo­crat leader Nick Clegg, has threat­ened to turn into a blood sport. It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary devel­op­ment con­sid­er­ing that ear­lier this year, in the run-up to the gen­eral elec­tion, Clegg was be­ing hailed as that rare thing: A politician of true prin­ci­ple.

Be­fore the elec­tion, Clegg made much of his prom­ise to stu­dents that if the Lib­eral Demo­cratic Party gained power it would never raise uni­ver­sity tu­ition fees. In­deed, he pub­licly signed a pledge never to raise them. Now he is a com­pli­ant part­ner in a coali­tion govern­ment with Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron's Con­ser­va­tive Party that is li­cens­ing uni­ver­si­ties to charge as much as 9,000 ster­ling pounds per an­num for tu­ition. In­sist­ing that the com­pro­mises en­tailed by be­ing in a coali­tion left him with no choice but to aban­don his com­mit­ment, Clegg also main­tains that it was made be­fore he dis­cov­ered the depth of Bri­tain's fi­nan­cial prob­lems.

It is not hard to un­der­stand why Clegg has be­come so re­viled by stu­dents who have been demon­strat­ing in London and else­where against a hike in fees that is widely seen as a gi­ant stride to­ward the pri­va­ti­za­tion of Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties. Not only has he failed to honor his word, he has done so with­out seem­ing to feel he has any­thing to apol­o­gize for. In­deed his man­ner has been in­flam­ma­tory. In­form­ing stu­dents that they are not liv­ing in the real world, Clegg has con­veyed the im­pres­sion of a testy school­mas­ter con­fronted by a re­cal­ci­trant class. Many stu­dents find his ex­cuse that he did not ap­pre­ci­ate the scale of Bri­tain's fi­nan­cial dis­ar­ray con­temptibly disin­gen­u­ous, since be­fore the elec­tion he and his col­leagues never stopped talk­ing about the mag­ni­tude of the coun­try's fi­nan­cial prob­lems.

Mean­while, the Con­ser­va­tive Party has largely es­caped the oblo­quy be­ing heaped upon Clegg and his Lib­eral Demo­crat coali­tion col­league, Busi­ness Sec­re­tary Vince Cable, who helped de­vise the new pol­icy for fi­nanc­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion. The pair has be­come hu­man shields for the Con­ser­va­tives, soak­ing up the hos­til­ity that would oth­er­wise be di­rected at David Cameron and Chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer Ge­orge Os­borne. The im­pres­sion is that Clegg is be­ing used by the Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship to "front up" not just an es­sen­tially Con­ser­va­tive higher ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy but a pack­age of cuts in pub­lic spend­ing far more ag­gres­sive than any­thing hinted at in the Con­ser­va­tive Party's elec­tion man­i­festo.

Yet if the Tory Party is se­cretly glee­ful that Clegg has set him­self up as a fall guy for its poli­cies, the glee may be short-lived. For Clegg has not only an­tag­o­nized stu­dents, he has cre­ated di­vi­sions in his own party that have the po­ten­tial to un­der­mine the coali­tion govern­ment. De­nied out­right vic­tory in the gen­eral elec­tion, the Con­ser­va­tive Party could not have formed a govern­ment at all with­out Lib­eral sup­port. That it is now be­ing sus­tained in power by a riven mi­nor­ity party with a desperately em­bat­tled leader would be an awk­ward even­tu­al­ity at the best of times. It is dou­bly awk­ward for a govern­ment that is seek­ing to im­ple­ment poli­cies that will im­pact ad­versely on mil­lions of Bri­tons.

A cri­sis of le­git­i­macy may be loom­ing for the Bri­tish govern­ment, if not the Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, with nu­mer­ous other groups set to suf­fer from cuts in pub­lic ex­pen­di­ture likely to take to the streets next year. It is a cri­sis that the govern­ment's in­sis­tence that its poli­cies are "fair" and that "we're all in this to­gether" can only deepen. The af­flu­ent Clegg epit­o­mizes an ad­min­is­tra­tion made up of mul­ti­mil­lion­aires who are pro­claim­ing their com­mon­alty with the rest of so­ci­ety even as they an­nounce mea­sures cer­tain to cause hard­ship they them­selves will be spared.

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