I feel a tremendous guilt for allowing my political articles to dry up over the last few months. It is not as if there have not been issues to debate, dissect and confront. In fact the coalition’s spending cuts have energised the public’s political opinions more than any other topic in recent years. Whether their policies are right or wrong, this government has shown a willingness to listen to its people and even a tendency to undo unpopular decisions when faced with a sufficient backlash, albeit over relatively minor issues like free milk, sport in schools and reading initiatives.
I have also not stopped writing about politics due to a loss of interest or lack of activity; in fact the opposite scenario is the case. I’ve welcomed the Lib Dem achievements gained in power. I have joined a number of campaigns against government policies I believe to be destructive and misguided, such as plans to sell off Britain’s woodlands, and marched on several student protests. Hordes of people to seem feel that the gravity of what the coalition is doing demands opposition and not only this but that the very nature of coalition politics makes democratic protest unusually effective.
Why then the failure to articulate reasoned and persuasive arguments against the cuts? In particular why the lack of output in relation to tuition fees? An issue directly relevant to my immediate future and the strength of the party I voted for, now branded as the great betrayers. After all as I’ve already said, it is not as if I would think my actions completely hopeless. Even though the motion passed in the Commons, the foundations of the government’s majority were shown to be extremely weak when great pressure is applied, with both Conservative and Lib Dem MPs refusing to back their leaders. If I added my voice to the online chorus it might not do much but it could do no harm in adding to the ever rising volume of argument.
I suppose I felt compromised. So swept up was I in passionate outrage, camaraderie and the excitement of genuinely doing something historic, that I could not write in a sufficiently detached, analytical manner. The issue was simply too close to home and tied up with too many emotions for me to rationally look closely at all sides of the debate. That is not to say I don’t have opinions I believe to be well supported and accurate about the issue, just that whenever I tried to express them they would sound weak and as if they were merely scratching the surface of something so vitally important to economic recovery, the future of our country and my own education. Of course I managed to write up my experiences of protest but whatever I said sounded inadequate and I felt incapable of getting across how strongly my fellow marchers felt and how justified I believed them to be.
Now though I am finally going to attempt to air my views on the issue, if only for my own personal relief and satisfaction. By keeping them simple and focusing on where the debate goes from here, I hope they can cut through all the complexity to the heart of the matter.
Firstly a note on Nick Clegg and his ministers’ eventual decision to back the plans. I completely understand why he chose to vote in favour of the proposals. He worked hard to inject fairness into the legislation and went above and beyond the safeguards suggested in the Browne report, despite the fact he was unavoidably still engineering a policy that upped the fees he’d promised his party would fight to keep down and if possible, abolish altogether. I think Clegg genuinely believes that despite the rise in fees, the modifications he secured ensure the new system will be fairer, especially for disadvantaged students, than the previous one. However it was still a grave mistake for Clegg not to utilise the clause in the coalition agreement allowing his party to abstain. He may have worried that had the motion not passed universities would have faced a funding crisis and the coalition would have splintered. Or behind the scenes he may have only gained his concessions in exchange for his supporting vote. Nevertheless if the option for him to abstain was truly there, he was foolish not to take it. Or, ironically given the savage demonization of him as a treacherous liar, he is simply too honest to not back a plan he was a partial architect of and believes in. Even after this crisis I am still of the opinion that Nick Clegg is a bold and truly progressive politician, bravely securing real change through compromise. I may disagree with his decision to back the change to tuition fees and stand aside for other Conservative policy, but this is the reality of coalition, and if he had had a majority government (in a dreamy alternate world) he would’ve squeezed the budget elsewhere.
At the height of the protests Clegg desperately tried to champion his hard won tweaks for fairness and criticised the marchers drumming up unfounded fears about the new system. Here he made another catastrophic political error, essentially labelling the protestors, vast swathes of which probably voted Lid Dem, as ignorant. If he’d listened to the prevailing, dominant chant at the protests he’d have understood that the marchers weren’t ignorant and that whatever modifications he offered as sweeteners collapsed under one fact: “NO IFS, NO BUTS, NO EDUCATION CUTS”. Just like everything else the coalition was facing opposition over, these protests were primarily about cuts. The NUS and others had made the mistake of focusing on the rise in fees in their criticisms; perhaps because the thought of paying more would inspire more students to turn up. But in reality it would be several years before the higher fees would come in and some real help had been hardwired in for poorer students. The arguments that a burden of debt would be a huge deterrent, that there would be no proper help for middle income families and that students would choose their university on price not quality, were all valid, but not as clear and convincing as the cuts.
The cuts to teaching and all aspects of university funding were big and would hit the standard and availability of university education immediately. Ideologically what really irked people was that fees were rising to plug the gap from a drop in government investment, thus sparking accusations of a shift to a privatised system predominantly paid for by students directly. Logically the coalition’s insistent argument that the rise in fees was a necessary evil to secure Britain’s world class higher education system long term, also fell apart because of the deficit driven cuts. All the reports say universities need more money to remain competitive. But the government was actually reducing investment and making up the shortfall with a huge hike in fees which might even jeopardise the current quality of education, let alone increase it. Perhaps most bafflingly of all, the government plans, with all Clegg and co’s little alterations for fairness, would still require expenditure and make absolutely no impact on the size of deficit, the coalition’s Holy Grail.
The leaders of campaign groups rant and rave that, as with Thatcher’s Poll Tax, protests will continue despite coalition success in Parliament, until the act is undone. However it looks unlikely that anything other than a hardcore will continue to mobilise on this issue. Unless, of course, a real alternative can be found to march for. This was always the Achilles heel of these protests, and marchers discussed it, wishing someone would get their act together. The ball is now in Ed Miliband’s court, with his new generation of Labour players. Labour must offer a practical but popular vision for higher education, sooner rather than later, if the fight is not to be lost. Of course Miliband’s team needed time to get it right and may need more, but the clock is ticking.
It will be a difficult balance to strike for Miliband. Understandably as a new, fresh leader of the Opposition, he jumped on the bandwagon of protest, stopping short of joining one, but regularly singing the praises of a graduate tax. Ultimately this progressive leap forward may prove unworkable and in any case his chosen Shadow Chancellor opposes any such measure. But if Labour focus on the cuts to higher education they can still offer a fairer, point scoring alternative. Growth is the coalition’s weak spot and Labour should highlight the decisions of other major economies to boost education investment and therefore jobs and tax revenues. A world class university system should drive a sustainable economic recovery. Restore investment and throw in a drop in fees, whilst retaining some Lib Dem additions, and Labour would not only be doing the right thing but keeping alive an issue that could break the coalition, with a credible, sensible alternative.
Short story: The Lonely Tree
This is just something I rattled out, slightly in the style of Murakami:
This is the story of a boy, who was not yet a man. It’s the story of his first love, his first heartbreak and the tree that fell on him.
It’s the fashion to have summer romances but the boy was allergic to everyone’s favourite season. It made his eyes red and his nose stream. In fact he had always thought that girls were allergic to him. It wasn’t that he couldn’t speak to them or that they didn’t like him, but that they couldn’t love him. More than anything the boy wanted to know love. One winter, when the air was crisp and the nights chilled, he thought that he did.
He couldn’t believe his luck. A childhood crush, the cleverest catch around and a friend he cared for deeply rolled into one package. Her smile locked his worries away and out of reach for hours. Being with her he felt as if he wasn’t alone for the first time in his life. Hearing from her was, surprisingly, almost as good. Making her happy filled the void of purpose in his life. His existence no longer felt empty. Simply put: she made him happy.
Fate had never looked so kindly upon him before and deep down he knew that her favours would be brief. But while it lasted nothing else mattered. Or rather, everything mattered more. Her dreams enriched and expanded his own, her energy and life gave them colour. He was filled with enthusiasm and a drive he did not know he possessed. He felt like a better person and fully himself for the first time.
Looking back on it he supposed the relationship would seem a short lived folly to onlookers, and this angered him. Nothing had ever meant more. At least to him. The boy had never realised just how important intimacy, close friendship and the joy of caring for someone was to happiness. When it ended, for no reason besides that she didn’t love him after all, things reverted to normal. Only more so.
He wondered if that happiness had been an illusion and whether he had truly known love. He felt catapulted back to square one. He did not know what to think or feel, knowing for certain only that he was empty again. And he was alone. The dreams that had grown to new heights in her company were now mere weeds, smaller than the clumps of green nothingness at the foot of the tree in his garden.
The tree watched as the boy moped and rolled around like a pig in his misery. At first the tree felt sympathetic towards the boy, as no one knew better than him what it was to be alone. Trapped in his hollow shell with no friends to speak of, and no means to speak, the tree longed for contact of some kind. He knew everything the boy was missing and more. And then the tree realised how selfish the boy was. And how much harder it was to be a tree.
As the spring rapidly shifted into summer the boy felt every concrete trace of his love fading away, swamped by the passing of time. With each day he felt more and more like he had no right to feel anything at all. All he had left were the memories and hopes in his head. He missed so much; far too much for words, he told himself.
On a blue morning with a blazing sun and abstract strokes of white overhead, the boy had an epiphany. Well it was that day at least that he admitted to himself a truth that he had felt for a while. He said to himself: “Love is enough for me”. He knew that, for the right person, he would sacrifice all the goals and ambitions he had thought essential to his well being, satisfaction and success. He acknowledged that, during his time with his first true love, he had enjoyed and derived immense contentment from even the harder things. He was glad to be there when she was upset, happy to calm her down, even if he was only a slight comfort. Caring for someone important to him, as important as that, was all he could ever need.
He remembered reading a novel in which the main character believed there were only three chances of finding your soul mate. He pondered whether for him, “soul mate”, meant someone worthy of his absolute care. Plunged back into sadness and despair by the thought of having lost someone he could lose himself in and devote himself to, he ran into the garden, blinded by fierce tears. He crouched down in the dirt, sniffling as the pollen swarmed up his hostile nostrils. He pressed his back against the trunk of the tree. He stared at the world around him, confused and crying.
By this point, the tree was seething. The tree didn’t know how he knew all about what the boy was thinking and feeling, but he did know, and it made him angry. The tree did not know he was capable of anger. The tree could not think, had no brain and nothing at all to account for the melancholy consciousness brooding within his gently swaying frame. The wind blew lightly across the garden, flicking the odd leaf and stroking the odd stem. The tree felt a shiver of cold. The tree felt.
The boy was gradually coming out of his panic, descending into a depressed paralysis. The loveliest, brightest petals of the most vibrant flowers looked bleak to him. His mind’s eye conjured a symbolic bonfire of his dreams in the corner of the lawn. If he could be so easily tempted from them, what chance did he have of achieving such grand plans? What did they matter anyway? Forcing his head up from its slouch on his knees, he felt the bark in his hair and decided there was no point to any sensation at all without someone to share it with.
The tree was fuming with anger from its roots to its summit. It could sense the boy’s sadness. His self involved and ungrateful emotion wasn’t just saturating the air around the tree now, but squirming and writhing against its flaky skin. The tree couldn’t stand it. It was determined not to take it anymore. It wouldn’t be buffeted by nature or ignored by men today.
The boy sighed deeply, turning his face into the breeze and relishing its cold wipe. He felt the gusts get stronger and firmer in waves, as if someone were stirring the air with an enormous food blender. Pulse after pulse slapped against him. The sweat under his arms went from hot and sticky to icy and damp. His spine creaked as the tree trunk rocked a little against him. His back stood firm easily like a castle wall against the minute thrusts.
The tree was summoning all of its energy from its very furthest extremities, even the roots beyond the garden wall. The tree was straining every part of its being in pure and untamed rage. The tree was alive and a part of nature but for the first time ever it was wild. It did not have muscles to tense or bones to move but it had life and the tree channelled every last ounce of it into its rage. It didn’t know what it was doing or understand the consequences. All it knew was how wrong the boy was, how angry it made the tree feel. It was trying to teach the boy a lesson, on behalf of trees everywhere.
The boy continued to feel little swellings at his back. Small pressures, surely caused by the wind, made the entire structure of the tree wobble a fraction. Leaves that had been noisily rubbing in the flower beds slowly stopped. The bending blades of grass rested and stood upright. Gradually, the trunk seemed to be moving faster, almost pushing out into the boy, like something was stuck inside. The tree rocked more and more as the breeze died away to an unnoticeable whisper. As the branches began to rattle, the boy noticed properly for the first time the firmer and firmer touch of the trunk. He glanced up towards the sky, through the canopy of crisscrossing browns and greens, only to shrug away again with a sob.
The boy’s indifference only enraged the tree still more. So that, as the swaying grew quicker and quicker, the consciousness that had formed inside the tree disappeared, becoming something else entirely. Now the tree was just movement, just energy, just purpose. All of the life the tree had ever known became focused on the boy and ending his ignorant and cruel soul. The tree had never known what a soul was; would never know. It did not know whether or not the boy had one. It only knew that the boy had to be stopped. He had to be taught that at least he had tasted love, known happiness, shared warmth and feeling. He had to be shown that at least he could dream, chase dreams and possibly live them. There were always those lives that did not live, always those with truly no hope left; always lonely trees.
There was a crack. And the trunk threw its full weight at the boy, who scrambled too late from his pity. Falling branches pulled away the light and the blue from the canvas of the sky, bringing only dark.
Like in films, the boy came to gazing at sheer whiteness. Nothing else. The colour white was the afterlife? Appropriately empty he thought. And then he remembered. The tree.
He had often dreamt about his funeral. A song lyric drifted into his mind – “the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”. The dreams in which he was dead were some of the best he’d ever had; terribly self indulgent fictions in which all the figures and characters of his life turned up, gushing praise and regrets. All the girls and friends he’d ever wanted poured their hearts out. He was great after all.
There was no one here he really wanted to see. The strip lights buzzed and whirred, stuffing light down his retinas. The whiteness turned out to be the roof tiles. A steady beep and blip passed the time like a clock ticking. His heart was liable to suddenly conk out. He was hooked up to a monitor like on telly. His parents were here.
They didn’t believe him about the tree. When he was well enough to argue, they argued. They accused him and lectured him. They warned and scorned him. His mother ranted about the hardships of life, bemoaned his ignorance. Even his father shouted. He wasn’t allowed grapes, hadn’t been for years, so someone, probably his mother, had brought biscuits. His father had eaten most of them during the interrogations.
If he’d been able to text, he might’ve texted her, would definitely have texted his best friend. She hadn’t come to see him, even when he’d asked his parents to try to organise it. He was still alone. But something felt different. His skull was cracked, his spine weakened, his legs bruised, his right ankle broken, toes misshapen, right thumb fractured, left hand in plaster, nose crooked, face scratched, knees cut, wrists sprained and buttocks sore. But he felt stronger.
When they took him home he realised what it was. The tree hadn’t been dealt with yet. Its big, bulky carcass, torn in two and smashed in a heap through the fence, reminded him how bad he had felt. It reminded him that he’d realised he just wanted somebody to love. A universal truth, some might say, theme of many a song, but for him it was deeper, all his other wants were trivial and only to love was what he needed and what he craved.
Those trivial dreams might have been exposed as mostly meaningless, but somehow the tree had taught him they were still important. Months in a hospital bed had forced him to write again to pass the time. So that’s what he would do. He would write more and more, hopefully better and better, churning out any old nonsense. He would write to forget, write to remember, write to move on, write to preserve, write from the heart, write from the mind, write in the night, write in the day and write to lose himself. He would write because he could. And to touch, now and again, on truths that made everything worthwhile. Even the lonely trees.
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