To set the scene, imagine that you’ve been transported to Britain, near the start of May 2010.
It’s actually sunny*, ‘Airplanes’ is well on the way to being the most overplayed song of the year, and there’s an election coming up.
Like there would be normally, there’s certainly focus on the battle between the ‘big two’ parties: the Labour Party which was lead by the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown; and the Conservative Party, which was lead by the somewhat more charismatic David Cameron.
But, at the same time, according to legend, there were 4 words that everyone and their dogs had on their lips: “I agree with Nick”.
That is to say, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. There had just been a series of live tv debates starring the leaders of the 3 biggest parties at the time (UKIP were around back then, but pretty much insignificant) and, while even Gordon Brown hadn’t done badly, Nick Clegg was the unquestioned winner of them. He seemed genuine, and, maybe more importantly, the Lib Dems were neither Labour nor Tory at a time when faith in either party was at a low. They also had some really progressive policies.
Most notably, they’d all signed a pledge not to support any future rise in tuition fees.
I’m honestly not really doing justice here to the heady heights of ‘Cleggmania’. People really were super into him.
So, no one was really surprised that a. we had a hung parliament and b. the outcome of this was a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party (well, maybe a bit by this development, but it was either a Con Dem coalition or a convoluted one of every left-of-tory party going). Things were, according to legend, looking up. Then David Laws, the Lib Dem Chief Secretary of the Treasury found a note left by his predecessor, Liam Bryne. It read ‘Dear chief secretary, I'm afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck! Liam.’. Bryne claimed it was a joke, and, as far as jokes go, this is quite possibly the most destructive in British history (he’d apologise. Eventually).
There’s a reason for the ‘according to legend’; the Tories had always been advocates of austerity, and by and large the debate in the election was about degree. But, at the same time, I’d say it was stuff like this that lead to Austerity (™) defining the political landscape for years to come (including the most recent election), and granted the impetus to ramp up the cuts further (little did we know that the Lib Dems weren’t lying when they claimed to be tempering the worst of it).
But this is a digression about something only tangentially related to what this post is really about.
For the next part of our tale we should actually skip ahead to October 2010, when the Browne Review (commissioned by the then Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson for the previous Labour Government in 2009) was published. Long story short, it recommended (summary taken from Wikipedia):
Removing the cap of £3,290 a year that universities could charge for tuition
Raising the point at which tuition fees loans are paid back from £15,000 to £21,000 a year
Changing the repayment scheme such that loans were only to be paid back at 9% of any income earned over £21,000
Giving part-time students equal entitlement to tuition under the Student Finance Plan
The Government decided to reject that top one, and instead cap things at £9000. But this still entailed a roughly threefold rise in fees.
Needless to say, the student unions weren’t happy.
This lead to a protest on the 10th November. Said protest lead to an invasion of Millbank tower and, though YMMV on that, was a major catalyst for the anti-cuts movement generally from the end of 2010 through to probably 2011. Certainly, as far as I’m concerned personally this was a formative moment.
There were further protests, and these were absolutely massive in scale and also police dickery (I’m being flippant, but it is something I do urge you to look into. The kettling alone - for instance students were kettled for 9-10 hours on 24 Nov, without access to toilets- is quite something).
They also didn’t work. The tuition fees rise passed, albeit only with a narrow majority. Narrow enough that, if 12 more Lib Dems had followed up on their promise and voted against the rise, it wouldn’t have passed.
Although I think the Lib Dems will be forgiven eventually, especially as the extent to which we owe them on the civil liberties front becomes more evident, the net result of this was that their parliamentary presence (and their European Parliamentary presence) was decimated in the 2015 elections, as people who decided that they quite liked the coalition (or who were just absolutely terrified of the SNP) voted Tory, and people who voted not-Toy decided to switch to voting for the Labour party instead. (for what it’s worth they did actually have 8% of the vote, and if the system was proportional they’d have about 50 seats, but, unfortunately, First Past the Post)
As a final note, I am well aware that this is very much just an ‘overview’ and I’ve glossed over a lot of stuff. This applies to all of these posts, but if someone wants to ask me something more specific they are more than welcome to.
Tune in 'tomorrow' for a closer look at how tuition fees and the like work in England.
*That is to say that I certainly recall this time period being fairly sunny (at least in the Midlands). The Met Office bears me out a bit - apparently sunshine levels were 10% above average, but I’m thinking of the start of the month, and it seems this was more towards the end of it. Ah well.