Tuition Fees: Power and Promises


5. A Pragmatic Assessment

So has any damage been caused to the wider LibDem cause by the policy u-turn? What lessons should Clegg and his team learn from this episode? A flurry of advice has been forthcoming.

To the pragmatist, there is nothing very remarkable and nothing fundamentally ‘wrong’ with this episode. Clegg and his team have done exactly what they should do as leaders. Their job is to get the party into power: they’ve delivered at least partially on their mission.

The LibDems now control the positions of deputy Prime Minister and Business Secretary and a handful of other cabinet posts. They are influencing policy and its implementation.

By refusing to form the Coalition they might have condemned the party to many more years without power; indeed they might never have secured it. Is the price – disgruntled voters and students  – too high to pay for this access to the top table? No.

Writing in the Independent on 11 December 2010, Andrew Grice urges Clegg to ‘learn the lesson of this fiasco’.

“The arguments on fees are all over the place. Sometimes they confess to making an unrealisitic pledge; on other occasions they say abolishing fees is`still their policy; blame the economic crisis; blame coalition politicians; say they are proud of the policy or even apologise for it.”

And what would the main lesson be?

“The obvious one is about unrealisitic promises.  After a spell of sharing power, the next manifesto will have to be framed for another coalition, not the government of the party’s dreams.”

Grice predicts that any damage to the party will be short-lived. Reports of the demise of Clegg or the Coalition are “exaggerated”. Clegg hopes his party is simply experiencing “growing pains”. Sir Alan Beith weighs the opprobrium dealt out by angry students to LibDems in power, against the days when the party had no seat at the top table and declares: “I am not going back there”.

The pragmatist’s advice is clear:

  • Clegg’s main mistake was pledging to implement an ‘unrealistic’ (another word for radical?) tuition fees policy;
  • he should have realised that realpolitik would give him access to a share of power, with a party which is ideologically opposed to this policy;
  • the pledge therefore served only to hinder the LibDems assumption of power;
  • this was not a major mistake, because it only involved breaking promises to voters (it’s not as though he broke pledges made to the City).

This position is completely in tune with pragmatic thinking. As a pragmatic leader, Clegg, by their accounts, hasn’t done too badly so far.

3 thoughts on “Tuition Fees: Power and Promises

  1. On matters in general I am an idealist. But on tuition fees I am one of Spincop’s pragmatists. The political ‘system’ (of which we are all a part in one way or another) expects political parties to make election commitments, to simplify and avoid nuance, and not to hedge their bets with ‘ifs and buts’. Parties know that they need to win power if they are to achieve anything. So, they make promises to garner our votes. But the public should take election manifestos with a pinch of salt. If the LibDems had been elected to govern, perhaps the critics would have a point, but the Conservatives won the election. The Government is a coalition, with LibDems a minority. All parties to a coalition cannot have their way. Compromise when it comes to Commons voting means that one party or another is going to be open to the charge of breaking a pledge or principle, not sticking to its guns, etc. Politicians would be wise to resist making pre-election promises. The public and media need to grow up. Instead of singling out the big fish to blame, see and understand that the fishtank (aka the system of attaining and exercising political power) is “fearful, stressful, murky, confusing and insecure”. Cleaning up electioneering (as Phil Woolas found to his cost) is necessary, but political fish will never shine as brightly as we’d like them too, because the water is always going to be somewhat dirty. Not just here but in the Middle East too. It’s easy to see and blame the sharks in Sharm el-Sheikh’s blue waters, but it’s people who dump food waste in those waters and feed fish to get nearer to them and take better pictures. A few days ago I passed a road sign saying ‘Don’t complain about the traffic: you are the traffic’. Well, we are all a part of a politician’s environment: they sometimes feed us promises because they know that is what we want to hear them say, and then we reward them. So stop feeding them in return. Vote for the ‘no promises’ party! Most of them are really trying to do their best in the circumstances. That all we should hold them accountable for.

    1. Bill – this is a good, robust response to the post, much of which I’m in agreement with. I am critical of Clegg, but I accept your point that he’s been swimming in filthy water for some time! I would just like to see a leader (of any political persuasion) make a start, no matter how small, on cleaning it up.

      My particular concern here is that people in high profile leadership roles (in public life and in business) are undermining the credibility of leadership when they act in this way. A classic example is calling for restraint, belt-tightening and sacrifice. This only has any real power if your own record on these matters stands up to scrutiny.

      When it doesn’t, you just water the seeds of cycnicism. How many more percentage points can the ‘I never trust a politican’ score increase by before the whole system is in terminal disrepute? There are some pretty unsavoury political movements swimming in the waters already; people in power should be careful not to provide them with a food supply. Thanks again for your excellent feedback.

  2. I’d have some sympathy with the cry of ‘we didn’t know how bad it was until we were in power, and so that is why we are going back on our promise’ if they didn’t all read the same briefings, walk down the same corridors, and drink in the same bars. In business, if you are externally recruited this cry washes, if you are promoted or transferred from another unit it does not. I suggest that Clegg has been promoted or perhaps transferred from another unit.

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