Martin Bright

Students provide lesson in the Big Society

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It’s quite something when the editor of The Spectator concedes that revolting students (if not the rioting ones) have a point. Fraser makes a persuasive point that no government department should have been immune from cuts.

The political fallout from the decision to slash university budgets and hike tuition fees will continue long after the students withdraw from the streets.

The devastating hit on higher education makes the coalition look like just another crew of right-wing philistines.

One of the curious aspects of this fiasco is Nick Clegg’s attempts to represent this as his Clause Four moment, when the Liberal Democrats finally became a grown-up party of government. The reality is that he has done his coalition partners no favours in allowing them to go down this road. He would have saved the Tories from themselves if he has stuck to his pledge on tuition fees and insisted on cuts elsewhere.

Instead, a genuine movement has grown up around Nick Clegg’s perceived act of treachery – he has become a classic mob hate figure.

In doing so he has spawned a more spontaneous illustration of the Big Society in action than his coalition partners could have dreamed of.

As a veteran of demonstrations (the giant CND march of 1981 was my first, at the age of 15), I have to take my hat off to the present generation (violence aside of course). As, many have pointed out, these changes will not even affect those marching today. This is a stand of genuine principle. The old arguments about future earning potential do not hold in a time of economic crisis and mass participation in higher education. These debts will be crippling to all but the most privileged.

These demonstrations took us all by surprise. I began my politics course at City University this year with the usual tirade against the apathy of UK students, which just goes to show the weakness of my political antennae.

But no one can have been more surprised than Nick Clegg and David Cameron. Were they on the great grant demonstrations of 1984? Clegg was possibly too young and Cameron on a gap year. But I don’t see either of them as having been comfortable on a student march. I was there, but then I was on a grant and I would not have been able to go to university without it.