It seemed until recently that the fine, noble tradition of student outrage was dead in the UK. There are so many universities, so many students, so many vocational courses, it seemed going to uni was just another career choice. The idea of idealism appeared to have died. To be honest, when I was student it hardly burned bright. Mrs Thatcher had gone, the focal point of much hatred, so youthful anger had dissipated. There was also the growing idea that to agitate and march and protest was somehow uncool. What was the point? No point sticking it to The Man when the The Man never listens.
Which is why it has been heartening to see British students rise en masse the past few weeks. The focus of their revolt are the new tuition fees introduced by the Coalition government. These amount to a staggering £9000 a year. Throw in living costs, and it is estimated that students of the future could leave college with debts of around £50,000. An obscene amount of money to owe before you've even started your career.
Of course, those affected most are those will be those from less wealthy backgrounds. Rich parents will be able to pay for their kids to study. The poorer won't. Many bright kids from working-class backgrounds when faced with the prospect of taking a job and earning, or going to college and racking up horrific debt, will choose the former. So much for meritocracy and the entirely noble ideal that everyone should have the chance to better themselves regardless of their starting circumstances in life. What the private school system has established - the right for rich parents to buy be able to buy the best education for their children - the new university system will entrench. You will not be surprised to learn that nearly almost every single prominent member of the Coalition is from a wealthy family and went to a private school.
The fact is, Britain is becoming as socially immobile as the United States. In the 1980s, until Mrs Thatcher and her public services wrecking ball, students were given a government grant which covered their fees and their living costs. They could even claim benefits in the holidays. The number of children that went to university form poorer backgrounds increased exponentially. Then it was cut back, and student loans introduced. But while wrong, these were still manageable. The last Tory government, alarmed by reports from employers that the marketplace needed more graduates, created a host of new universities. More than ever before were going on to further education. Now these unprecedented numbers are likely to be decimated, as many turn their back on their studies because of the crippling debt they will incur. The problem is there aren't that many jobs either in the current economic climate (a backdrop which makes the new fees doubly outrageous. This was a problem created entirely by the wealthy and the greedy and it is the poor and the needy who will end up paying the price.) Pundits are predicting increasing discontent from school-leavers and students, and for protests against the fees to continue.
The main focus of their anger is the increasingly reprehensible Deputy Prime Prime Minister Nick Clegg. The backlash from the left in the US towards Obama shows us that there is no ire as great as thwarted hope. The right can get away with it. Being entirely cynical, they govern on the basis that we're all going to Hell and all we need is a steady hand on the Handcart. The left campaign in poetry despite the fact ruling can only be done in prose. Promises are made, ideals aspired to, expectations raised. Then when power is attained, and the reality explained, they have no option but to kowtow and compromise, under a hail of fire from the right-wing media and the vested interests of business. But whereas Obama is manfully and bravely seeking to push through at least some legislation that can actually benefit ordinary people, such as his admirable Health Care plan, Clegg has revealed himself to be a Tory in sheep's clothing. The Lib Dems, his party, who became a protest vote for all those tired and fed up of the last Labour government and couldn't possibly bring themselves to vote for the right-wing Tories, entered the coalition and have since given up every principle they appeared to have stood for. Public services have been slashed in the name of 'austerity' when everyone knows it is motivated by Tory ideological malevolence - Nick and his lads and lasses lined up to vote it through. Then we have tuition fees, a move which will effectively deny a university education to all but the wealthy. Some of his party voted against the bill, aware they had made a clear pledge during the election campaign to not to raise tuition fees and such a promise should actually mean something - Nick and his cronies voted for it.
The result is that Lib Dems could well be spent as an electoral force. They have helped prop up an ideological Tory regime and reneged on most of their promises. For what? The Tories won't thank them for it. They have their core support and always will. The Labour party is rebuilding itself as a viable opposition. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems, loathed by their own supporters for selling out, derided by Tories as willing dupes, and ridiculed by Labour voters as lickspittle fig-leafs for a bunch of right-wing crazies, are polling at 8%, their lowest ever. And it serves them right.
Their only positive legacy will be to have shaken students from their chronic apathy and returned protest and dissent to the streets of the United Kingdom. Hilariously, some of the protesters came across a car carrying Prince Charles and Camilla. They gave it a bit of a kicking and HRH a bit of a fright, but there seemed some justice that the Prince, as dumb as a box of frogs but able to go to University because of his wealth and pedigree, should encounter irate students seeking to defend the right of those who might have the brains but don't have the pounds to enjoy the education so wasted on Chaz. So far the protests have met with only a typically brutish and heavy-handed response by the British police. It is early days though. Long may it last.