Today belonged to the rebels. Today rebels emerged in many guises. Today might well have signalled a new direction in UK politics.
The expected rebels were the Liberal Democrat MPs who thumbed their noses at their Coalition government’s efforts to hike up tuition fees for university students to quite eye-watering levels. In the end, the Lib Dems split three ways – those Ministers in the Government who helped to vote the fees through on the tightest of margins, those backbenchers who abstained and those honourable souls who stuck by their pre-election pledges and voted against the proposals. They included two former party leaders, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, and the current President, Tim Farron. In the process, two parliamentary aides resigned, including one Scottish MP, Mike Crockhart. In total, 21 rebelled and a further 8 were posted missing, either legitimately or because their conscience demanded they abstain.
But there was another less predictable and therefore, more surprising rebellion. Six Conservative MPs voted against their Government, including the well signposted action of former leadership contender, David Davis, and a further two abstained, including one parliamentary aide, Lee Scott. His reasoning on Radio 4’s PM programme was passionate and articulate. He left school at 15 and had to go to nightschool to get an education. He would have loved the chance to go to university and delivered it for his five children. But if fees had been at the level proposed, they would have been denied that opportunity. He did not want to inflict such debt on nor deny such opportunity to others’ children. A real working class Tory who has clearly not forgotten his roots.
This is the real story of parliamentary rebellion. The Lib Dems always had an opt out from this measure and their rebellion was somewhat expected. But eight Tories? Who foresaw that? It is a small rump, granted, but it certainly signals interesting times ahead. As Nick Robinson at the BBC points out, how MPs voted today defines which tribe – loyalist or rebel – they are in. And once in the rebels’ tribe, few go back. Rather they become emboldened, feted and come to enjoy the status. In short, eight Conservative rebels at this relatively early stage in the government’s term could mean a lot of trouble over future controversial issues. David Cameron might come to regret his relaxed accommodation of his rebels today. The burd, for one, looks forward to it.
But by far the most staggeringly stunning rebellion has been that of young people. The burd is writing this while listening to the blah, blah, blah of the grown ups on the news. And how the “hard core minority” of trouble makers has derailed the legitimacy of students’ protests. And that people watching will be horrified and upset at the scenes of flag burning, statue defacing and – shock, horror – attacking the Royal Family!
Yes, some of the scenes from today’s protest are shocking and indefensible. But they are also exhilarating and many folk will be silently cheering these so-very-young protesters on. In one summer, the ConDem government has managed to politicise a generation indelibly, way beyond anything mainstream politics could ever hope to do. This is the rebellion that might well change the face of politics as we know it. Effectively, young people all over the UK – for student occupations have taken place in Scotland too – have realised how little they have to lose, and how much they might have to gain by defying conventional wisdom and expectations. You want to price our future beyond our reach? Bring it on. And realise that we have nothing left to lose. For an outstanding observation and analysis of who participated in today’s rebellion, go read Paul Mason’s blogpost: Dubstep rebellion – the British banlieue comes to Millbank.
The ConDems, and indeed the entire political elite, should be very afraid at what these tuition fee proposals has awakened, both within the parliamentary tent and without. Rebel, rebel indeed.