With the incidents of the 9 December’s anti-fees protests sparking internal investigations by the Metropolitan police which have yet to be concluded, the one certain result emerging from a frantic day in and around Parliament is that the plans to raise the cap on tuition fees was carried, by a majority of 21 votes.
The vote followed a heated 5-hour Commons debate, in which bitter criticism was levelled at the plans for tuition fees by MPs of all 3 major parties. The proceedings concluded in a victory of 323 votes to 302 for the Coalition, meaning that students may now be charged a maximum of £9,000 in tuition fees.
In a breakdown of the vote: 28 Liberal Democrat MPs voted in favour of the raising of tuition fees from £3,290 to £9,000, thus directly contradicting the promise made by the party during the General Election (a promise kept by 21 Liberal Democrats who voted against the Coalition), whilst 8 MPs abstained or were absent from the vote. From the Conservative MPs: 6 votes against and 2 abstentions helped to reduce the government’s notional majority from 84 to 21, yet could only narrow a Coalition victory in what has proved to be its most testing episode to date.
Mike Crockart, Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West quit as Private Parliamentary Secretary, his role transferring to the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, in order to oppose the government’s proposals, and later stated in a letter to the chief whip that he could not vote for a system he believed would put “barriers in the path of able students”.
Jenny Willott, Lib Dem MP for Cardiff Central also resigned a post in order to oppose the coalition’s plans; her post as Private Parliamentary Secretary went to Chris Huhne.
Reactions to the day’s proceedings have been mixed to say the least. The Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable insisted the controversial plans to roughly treble the cap on tuition fees were “progressive” and were designed to “maintain high quality universities in the long term, tackle the fiscal deficit and provide a more progressive system of graduate contributions based on people’s ability to pay”. Yet many, including John Denham MP believe that the Liberal Democrats have forfeited the party’s right to call themselves ‘progressive’ by backing the fees increase proposals.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said the outcome was “disappointing for young people in the country” whilst NUS president Aaron Porter described the policy as “unfair, unnecessary and wrong”.
Yet without doubt, the strongest reaction to the day’s proceedings was made by those crowding Westminster in protest at the proposal to raise fees. Thousands packed the surrounding streets with tensions running high, given both the police presence and the potential gravity of the events unfolding in Parliament, whatever the outcome.
As parliamentary procedure realised the greatest fears of the protesting thousands, tempers flared as protesters and police clashed, with fireworks and fists thrown in heated exchanges. Amidst the mounted charges and vandalism of the day’s protests, the major flash points were no doubt the Met Police’s treatment of Jody McIntyre, and the attack on the royals’ car, both of which are now the subjects of internal police inquiries.
McIntyre, 21, was twice removed from his wheelchair by police, in the first instance carried 100 yards “for his own safety” and in the second, unceremoniously dumped on the ground and dragged to the side of the road before the policeman responsible was restrained by colleagues. A formal complaint from McIntyre is expected after he revealed he was in talks with his solicitor.
The subject of the second police inquiry is the attack on Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall as they made the 10 mile journey from Clarence House to the London Palladium for the Royal Variety Performance. Onlookers stated that protesters were throwing “anything they could get their hands on”. Questions have been raised over the security accompanying the couple as protesters faced little opposition in venting their frustrations on the armoured Rolls Royce.
There is little doubt that the saga of the student fees has been the coalition government’s greatest challenge to date. The 21-vote margin sealing the near-trebling of student fees and thus a winter of discontent for the anti-fees movement marks a major victory for the coalition government, but, many have publicly wondered: at what cost?