Nick Cohen

The Death of Gentlemanly Government

The Death of Gentlemanly Government
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It seems like only yesterday that conservative pundits were denouncing MPs for “destroying trust” with their fraudulent expense claims and writing books exposing New Labour deceitful spin with such stirring titles as The Rise of Political Lying. How soft those strident voices have become now that a centre-right rather than a centre-left government is doing the lying.

Conservative and particularly Liberal writers have yet to understand what they have thrown away by resorting to the discredited politics of the past. One of the attractions of the Coalition, even to those who did not vote for it, was that it looked like a government of gentleman was in power, after the thuggish, know-nothing rule of Brown, Whelan and McBride.

If you want to play the gentleman, however, you must first learn that your word is your bond, and the Liberal Democrats have broken theirs in scandalous fashion.

If they had just said that they had changed their minds on tuition fees and increased them by a reasonable amount, they might have got away with it. We have to clear the public debt, and the young must play their part. But why did they impose a near 300 per cent rise, rather than, say, a 33 per cent or even 50 per cent increase, which the country’s grave position might justify?

The more you look at the reasons why the government has turned on the young, the uglier they seem. As I say in my Observer column:

"The vulnerability of the young explains why the coalition has hit them with such force. In democracies, politicians worry about those who vote and a majority of the young do not. The pollsters at Ipsos MORI estimated that only 44% of 18 to 24-year-olds and only 55% of 25 to 30-year-olds voted in the 2010 election. By contrast, 73% of 55 to 64-year-olds and 76% of those aged 65 or over turned out.

In the mid-20th century, the customary political apathy of youth did not matter overmuch. Electorates split on class lines. If a Labour-supporting 19-year-old could not be bothered to vote, a 59-year-old man, who shared his interests, could. Varying turnout levels between the generations balanced out. Now no sharp-eyed political operator can miss the mass of baby boomers stomping on all around, as it lumbers like some great, grey elephant towards the grave. The baby boomers have interests of their own. More importantly, they have the power to hurt politicians who ignore them.

The Office for National Statistics reported that Britain passed a dividing line in 2009. The 24.5 million 16 to44-year-olds, who were likely to be in work or getting ready to work, had been overtaken by the 25.7 million aged 45 years and above, who were starting to think about retirement or had retired. We now have twice as many pensioners (12 million) as 18 to 24-years-olds (5.9 million).

The coalition has redrawn the boundaries of the politically possible to reflect the new demographics. A few weeks ago, it seemed "realistic" politics to soak the young, who are few in number and unlikely to vote, while pandering to the old, who are many and vociferous."

But I wouldn’t count on the follies of the Left saving my reputation if I were Clegg. It is not just the young, who are disgusted. Middle-class students have parents who hate the way the Liberals conned their children. People who scrape to find money for the bills are also becoming a little tired with the ludicrous assumption of complacent Westminster commentators that the British middle class consists of people as wealthy as – well –  complacent Westminster commentators, and can thus take on whatever debts the Coalition throws at them. They know that if their sons and daughters start life with £50,000 or more of debt, they will find it very hard to afford a home, marry someone with £50,000 or more of debt and have kids. They wonder how they would have managed if the state had imposed the same costs on them in the 80s or 90s.

Beyond students and their families, there is a huge public distaste for smarmy politicians who cheat voters, particularly when those cheated voters are barely out of school.

Sarah Lucas, a young teacher, was one of the many poor saps who actually believed what Lib Dems told her in May. She tells today’s Observer:

"I feel let down, like I was naive. It is a bit like a boyfriend has cheated on you. I will not be able to trust them again – and trust is an important thing when you are deciding who should run the country."

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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