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.
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.