And of course, following on from my last post, those that died for our country died to preserve democracy, freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest.
If you weren’t marching yesterday the impression you will have gained from the national media is one of troublemaking tearaways, descending on London with their purposeless, ignorant views, intent on causing damage and achieving thrilling highs with each frustration filled kick at the establishment, at unprepared police. If you were at the protest, as I was, you would have seen in excess of 50,000 perfectly peaceful but passionate people with a clearly shared general aim. I say “seen” but really you couldn’t see a lot beyond the immediate placards in front and behind you, but you could sense and feel the masses. My friend described it as a “sea of placards”. I went the whole day blissfully unaware that anything truly violent had taken place. The headline of The Times today reads “Thuggish and disgraceful”, in what I view to be a disgraceful piece of reporting. Of course for the media the story of the day was the eruption of rare violence but it is wrong to falsely brand such a vast swathe of respectful young people as “thuggish”. For one thing The Times headline takes out of context a quote from a police officer who had actually praised the majority of those attending the day, whilst condemning the minority his men were consequently surprised by.
Having said that I did not witness any violence all day, I did make it to Conservative Party HQ at Millbank, scene of the carnage, and the tense atmosphere in the air was chilling. Chilling in an exciting way. I was for the most part not fearful at all during my brief stay at Millbank. High-vis wearing organisers made half-hearted attempts to steer us away from the throng at Tory HQ, but having remembered what it was and just past the MI5 offices (which were apparently locked down at some point), I was keen to get a glimpse. I’d say we got about half way in but there was still a sizeable crowd between us and the doors, so later I could not say if glass had already been smashed or violence was already in progress. There was a fire going though, off to our left over more heads. It was fuelled by placards and the crude wooden sticks used to hold them aloft. Later I would see pictures of Cameron dunked into the flames in the papers, at the time I could only see the glimmer of orange reflected on the roof and smell the thick black fumes. Helicopters swirled past the towers overhead. Enthusiastic chanting, full of essentially harmless vitriol, went on with an endless intensity not noticeable elsewhere on the march. And as we left the sickening boom of an explosion close at hand foreshadowed the grisly scenes I would later learn about.
There was admittedly something exciting and inspiring about the atmosphere at Millbank, something I find slightly shameful having seen the damage caused there at some point during the day afterwards. There was an irresistible sense of something being done, of our indignation and righteousness being more adequately expressed. As someone I saw interviewed later on BBC News 24 said, the coalition now had Thatcher’s riots to go with her cuts. I do not in any way condone the violence, as it has undoubtedly smeared the message the ordinary marcher like myself was striving to hammer home, but there was a feeling amongst us that we ought to do something more than just walk and the added venom at Millbank was intoxicating. The country and the politicians needed to be sent a shocking signal, a wake-up call, which forced them to acknowledge the scale of the cuts was real and catastrophic, and as negative and transforming anything Thatcher or those before her dared to enact. But it’s almost certain the majority of the actual perpetrators were not even true to the cause but the moronic fanatics such large scale protests inevitably attract.
Prior to the seductive feel of the siege at Millbank, the march had been an impressive spectacle but an occasionally tedious and tame affair. The only glimpse of genuine revolutionary zeal before the flickering flames and fists pumping in the air at Millbank, was a red-hatted man with a megaphone in Parliament Square. This extraordinary speaker loitered in the area where protesting banners and signs permanently reside opposite Parliament; the sort proclaiming Iraq to be a war crime and Afghanistan a corporate expedition etc. Like a stand-up comedian he playfully bantered with the crowd, which had ground to a halt so that it was slowly trudging past Big Ben and the Commons at best. Groups were beginning a sit-down protest, with Nick Clegg probably still inside after taking over PMQ duty. Girls mounted traffic lights, litter swirled at our feet and drum beats pounded the air in the distance. He flattered us at first, saying what intelligent students we must be. Then he casually slipped in the conspiracy, urging us to use our intelligence and “connect the dots”. Just as I worried he was getting predictable, came his call to arms: “Think about it there aren’t enough police in this city to stop you all. Marching is good but won’t get it done, join me and occupy the city.” Or something to that effect, but more charismatically phrased. I was struck into excited laughter by the audacity of it. We hadn’t come to occupy London, Hitler and Napoleon had spent an awful lot of money and time and expertise trying to accomplish the same thing. Our spontaneous occupation, led by megaphone man, seemed unlikely to succeed therefore, but at the same time, glancing around me, the sheer numbers told me we would have a good go at it if we all stood together. The fantasy, that of a bygone age of socialist revolution, of people power and the possibilities of sudden change, truly motivated me.
Earlier at the march’s official start point on Horse Guards Avenue, speakers had tried to rally the troops. On the ground and in the thick of the towering placards however, the reality was that you could not hear the rhetoric, merely catching snatches of the speech. Each would unmistakeably end with the refrain “NO IFS, NO BUTS, NO EDUCATION CUTS” though. At times I think it may have been just as well for me that I could not hear the speakers, as I heard a glimpse of something about Trident at one point and there was inevitably other overly idealistic or socialist rhetoric I didn’t necessarily support. The striking white buildings on the avenue, dotted with innumerable windows, looming over us on each side, channelled the wind and the noise so that it was both a loud and cold wait for the off. The time was filled with idle talk about the changes being made by the coalition, its worst effects and the need for an alternative to march in support of.
There is undoubtedly a need for a well thought through alternative if opponents of the government’s scheme are to be credible, but the leading article in The Times today is unfairly harsh about the ignorance of students. It claims that the government system is an improvement in some ways, with the rise to £21,000 salary threshold, and it is only fair graduates pay for their education. However it neglects the deterrent such greater debts will act as to ordinary students from ordinary families, it ignores the fact that £21,000 is still an average wage and will often be earned without the burden of debt by those who didn’t attend university and “benefit” from it and most critically of all The Times ignores the key chant of the protest. We were marching against the absurdity of the government cutting funding by 40% (as well as the vital EMA payment, which needed tightening reform, not abolition) and then raising fees to plug that gap, creating a system which the students effectively pay for themselves and which is no better in terms of quality than the current one. British universities will continue to slide in comparison to international competitors, the government’s key claim, that their plan is sustainable, falls flat on its face.
Having said this I did feel absurd at times, marching alongside some with overly optimistic demands. I also felt bad for the unrelenting criticism coming the way of Nick Clegg. Whilst Clegg clearly made a terrible political miscalculation pledging himself and his party against any rise in fees, I still stand by my view of him espoused on this blog as an essentially admirable politician. As head of the junior partner in the coalition this is clearly one of the decisions that is principally Tory in its motivation. If the Lib Dems had total parliamentary control (an almost impossible to imagine scenario) then the spending could have been structured elsewhere to honour a pledge to students. As it was Clegg opted for some influence rather than none and has to bow to Cameron’s party on the bigger issues. The fact that the violence erupted at Tory HQ suggests the demonstrators and activists know who the real villain of the plan is, but there is still understandable anger about the Lib Dem “betrayal”. Clegg also set himself up for a frighteningly fall with his constant talk of honesty and honour in politics. I’d like to think he would still back a progressive alternative should one be found (hurry up Labour!) and I’m sure he’ll hope to return to the issue, perhaps with different allies. As it is though I did feel uplifted to be marching in solidarity with others against cuts to education; that Clegg should not have accepted so lightly and should have done more about.
When we did finally set off it was at a shuffling, rather than marching, pace. Having built up a lot of enthusiasm standing stationary for long periods, I was keen to stride ahead, but had to be content with feeling part of a massive, snaking entity, writhing through London streets, demanding to be heard. The shuffling continued with the occasional more spacious period, past Downing Street and painfully slowly through Parliament Square, all the way to the drama of Millbank. I took far too much pleasure in muttering to myself that David Cameron was miles away in China, as ignorant students directed personally tailored chant after chant at his famous black doorway as we passed Number Ten. I wished for a widescreen HD overview of events, for an action replay as I always did at live football matches in packed stadiums. It would have been nice to truly comprehend the scale of events from beyond my tiny worker ant perspective; to know where best my many, multiple protesting talents were to deployed. Where did they need me I wondered?
Despite the blinkered vision it was wonderful to feel part of history, to feel part of something greater with meaning, even if in reality it would prove politically ineffective. And as usual I loved wandering around London, seeing the Thames from all angles, absorbing that skyline. I’m getting far too used to and seduced by it. On top of it all I managed to share it with friends, as opposed to my usual solitary travels, some of whom I had not seen in a while. I didn’t get long enough in their company and I didn’t plant my flag within the bowels of Parliament, but all in all me and the beard had a good day out on the march.
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After AV and election humiliation: what next for Clegg and the Lib Dems?
The result was crushing. A firm no to electoral reform and a pummelling at local level for Lib Dem councillors is a devastating double whammy. The road back to even slight popularity will be rocky and steep, with huge risks of even further falls on the way. The media were quick to pounce on the misery of Clegg and the tensions within the coalition. Whilst exaggerated, there is no doubt that the coverage accurately reflects a permanent shift in the dynamic of the parties in partnership.
Firstly then why was the defeat so bad? And why did the Conservatives not only escape punishment but considerably strengthen their position with gains? In many ways it is pointless to dwell on the results. What’s done is done. Liberal Democrats across the board are declaring the need to move on and get on with the job, seemingly out of bitterness, but also out of practicality and necessity. It is perfectly understandable however that some big names, such as Cable and Huhne, have lashed out at their Tory coalition partners in the dizzying spiral of disappointment and defeat.
They feel, rightly, that their party has become a human shield. They feel that they are victims of immense unfairness, ironic given that the core of their policies on tax, education and indeed the voting system, are intended to increase fairness. The Liberal Democrats had to enter into coalition with the Conservatives. Labour was never a viable or democratic alternative. A minority Tory government would have been ineffective and lacked any Lib Dem input on policy, whether as a restraining or creative force.
They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Clegg would never have been forgiven had he passed up the chance to introduce a host of coveted Liberal measures. As I’ve argued before Clegg also saw an opportunity to open up politics. By showing that coalitions could work, the old seesaw between Labour and the Conservatives would be challenged. Consensus and cross party collaboration would produce broader ideas and solutions to the bigger issues, in a 21st century where ideology is far less important than results, to voters at least.
Where they went wrong is debatable. There are obviously a range of reasons. But primarily it seems to be that too much eagerness and what’s been described as “personal chumminess” between Cameron and Clegg, was on display. The broken promises therefore appeared to be callous and genuine deception, rather than an inevitable concession from the minority partner in coalition. On tuition fees the Lib Dems made the mistake of trying to claim that the new policy was a better one because of changes they instigated. They needed to make a greater show of their overwhelming reluctance to charge fees at all, whilst still championing the restraining measures for fairness that were their doing.
Ultimately it all comes down to Clegg’s economic gamble though. I am still not sure just how fully he buys into George Osborne’s interpretation of the crisis and his drastic solution. It may well be that privately Clegg still stands by his pre-election comments, that the deficit should be reduced gradually with a focus on growth in the short term. Adopting the Tory approach could be the primary price of going into government for the Lib Dems. But publicly he has signed his party up to comprehensive cuts in public spending that are at odds with the instincts of most Liberals. And you’d have to say that Clegg must believe the Conservative plan will eventually lead to growth, because if it doesn’t his party will be battered once more come the next General Election.
Certainly earlier this year I wrote about a speech in which Clegg made the most compelling argument thus far in favour of extreme deficit reduction, which essentially boiled down to longer term sustainability and strength in diversity for the economy. I still think he may be torn though and that he might accept some of Labour’s arguments that claim a slower pace of cuts would have restored greater growth sooner.
With regards to the referendum on AV Clegg clearly made an error when choosing the date. The key reason for Yes2AV’s failure was that their argument became inseparably embroiled with party politics and the local elections. Clegg’s personal unpopularity rubbed off on the campaign for reform, mainly because of dirty tactics from the No camp. Yes2AV also made ridiculous unrealistic claims about accountability, rather than keeping their argument simple. Celebrities made a late push for reform at a rally but by then it was too late, the argument should have been made more forcefully outside of the political sphere weeks before May the 5th.
Of course the important and interesting question now is what do the Lib Dems do to recover? And how will this affect the coalition? Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of Britain’s third party, was on Question Time on Thursday. He spoke eloquently and with reason on foreign affairs, prompting cheers and claps from the bulk of the audience. But when it came to domestic politics he found himself bogged down by the harsh public opinion of Clegg, so very different from the polls after the TV debates over a year ago. He valiantly defended the courage of his party’s leader under fire but could only react with frustration when the audience flatly refused to hear him out.
Clegg continued to show that courage in an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. Given the pictures of his gloom and the mountain to climb left by the results, Clegg gave remarkably assured answers and honestly asserted that he’d misjudged things, and that the Lib Dems needed to have a “louder voice” in the coalition. He spoke of the need to sing about the unexpectedly high number of Lib Dem manifesto policies being implemented. But in many ways all this was predictable and necessary.
The efforts to give his party an individual and distinctive again will undoubtedly begin to heal the wounds of defeat. He needs to show greater reluctance when he must go along with Conservative plans, pick the Tory policies he does oppose carefully for maximum impact and point out measures that perfectly illustrate the moderating influence of his party. Clegg has already worked out that NHS reform is the best way to begin a recovery, threatening to block it and demanding changes are made to meet concerns. However what would really give the Lib Dems a distinctive voice back is to propose and explain policies they would be implementing without the Conservatives.
What I mean by this is to set out policies, on tuition fees for example, that the Lib Dems would implement if they had the ideal (but unlikely) scenario of a majority government. These policies should be calculated to appeal to Labour voters and those within Labour potentially open to coalition. The Lib Dems need to reach out to Ed Miliband or those around him with influence, to stop him pounding the human shields of the coalition as opposed to those in the driving seat. A senior figure in the party, perhaps likeable President Tim Farron, should be chosen to run what would almost be an alternative Lib Dem opposition.
I accept this would be difficult to handle and could shatter trust and cooperation with the Tories. Many might say it’s impossible. But as long as Clegg and key Lib Dem ministers weren’t directly involved, the group did not challenge specific government policy and simply proposed Lib Dem alternatives not covered by the coalition agreement, there would be little the Tories could do to stop it. AV may be lost but the Lib Dems have plenty of arguments they can still make that are unique to them. They must take the philosophy behind AV, choice and fairness, and tie it to attractive policy. For example their manifesto went further on tax, transport, energy and the House of Lords. Choice is the key to freedom in a modern society and the Lib Dems must make the case for the state actively empowering individuals. The Liberals must show how they would liberate.
It’s probably better for Clegg to keep his head down for a while and continue to soak up pressure whilst his party recovers independently. Clegg’s popularity will take longer than his party’s to heal. But this does not mean he is the wrong man to lead it. He has for the most part taken bold decisions both in the national interest and to achieve greater fairness sought by his party’s voters. He has had to concede costly economic compromises, but to overcome these he must be bold again. Frankly after the tactics of the No Campaign, so wholeheartedly backed by Cameron, Clegg must dirty his hands a little. A louder voice will only convince dispirited voters if it hints at what the coalition is doing wrong because of the Conservatives, as well as what it’s doing right because of the Lib Dems.
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