The British media are giving Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats a hard time at the moment. Today it is specifically about the Parliamentary vote about increasing university fees which took place this afternoon.
What does the media not understand about how the Coalition works? Are the British so stuck in their ways that they cannot conceive of how a new model of government could operate?
Here’s how I see it. If you want the Liberal Democrats to stick to their election promises, then you really do need to vote them into power. They’re not in power – they are in coalition – and therefore they are incapable of fulfilling all of the promises they made while trying to be elected. Even if they had been voted into power, by the way, they could still change their election promises because “they reserve the right to change their mind when circumstances change”.
Even so, though, there is probably some good cause to question the Liberal Democrats on how they will each personally vote for the tuition fee increases. Again, here’s what is likely to happen. A few high profile and high ranking Liberal Democrats will be allowed to very publicly state that they against the measure. There may even be one or two who resign specific positions “in protest”. I am sure that these will be reported in headlines as “resignation” from the government, but in reality will just be resignations from positions in the government. (There is no way to prove it, but I am willing to bet almost everything I own that these people would have been resigning from those positions anyway.)
And then the measure will be passed by a reasonable majority.
Yes, folks, this is how politics works. The Lib Dems will be able to say that they fought against it, and that “look how many of our people even voted against it”, and that they were forced into doing something they wouldn’t have wanted to do. The Conservatives may have a few of these exhibits too. The measure is necessary and will be passed. The storm will pass. The Coalition will survive. The world will continue. And the UK will get something approaching what the rest of the world has in higher education – if you want it, you have to pay for it. I would not be surprised if Nick Clegg and Vince Cable will be the ones to announce a really excellent bursary/cheap loan scheme for students in about six months time.
Can we just start giving Nick Clegg, David Cameron and the Coalition government a bit more credit? The media – and general public – are drastically underestimating this government and how they get things done.
At one level, that’s a good thing for the country, though, because it is going to allow this government the potential to become one of the most powerful governments in UK history. And so far, they look like they’re heading in the right direction. Certainly, no-one else is suggesting any other direction we should be going…
POSTSCRIPT added on 10 December 2010:
Last night, I was watching Newsnight, the indepth news programme on BBC 2 every night. The host of the show, after reporting on the student riots during the day in Westminster, then introduced the next segment: an interview with Vince Cable, the Lib Dem MP who is the minister in charge of the tuition fee issue. Did she ask about the measure itself? Did she ask Mr Cable to explain the measure? Did she provide viewers with the details of the new measure, which does indeed raise the maximum fee a university may charge (not mandating that fee hike) but also provides grants, bursaries and interest free loans that only have to be paid back when students start earning and even then only in proportion to their earnings? No, she started with the most preposterous proposition put rudely to Mr Cable. This is the type of journalism that does absolutely nothing for the country or the watchers. Unbelievable.
Watch it for yourself below or at YouTube:
On Sunday, 12 December, LBC (‘London’s Biggest Conversation’ talk radio station) had the following headline news: “Students are considering whether to continue their protest action after government increased university fees to £ 9,000 this past week.” The government did NO SUCH thing. This is not just bad reporting – and sensationalist at that. It is just plain wrong. Incorrect. Unfactual. And therefore NOT NEWS!
Update on 21 December 2010
Today, Vince Cable is being lambasted in the media for comments he made to “undercover reporters” about a number of issues. Firstly, I am sure he was very aware of the fact that any comments he made were public record (even if he wasn’t entirely aware of the media status of the two women he spoke to). And therefore, I am sure that his comments are political – in the sense that they are designed to have an effect. Anyway – read my comment below in the comments box for more on this.
The purpose of this update is to let you see just how badly the UK media cover these sorts of things. The video below (or click here to see it directly at YouTube) is a 9 minute interview conducted by Kay Burley of Sky News with Lord Razzall, the Lib Dem peer. She spends 9 minutes making only one point, and trying to do everything to get the peer to trip up. He doesn’t. In fact, his replies are a masterclass in media management. Kay Burley just looks like an idiot in her approach and style.
If Rupert Murdoch’s minions manage to get YouTube to remove this clip, contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send it to you directly.
The media are supposed to be the “unofficial opposition” to the government. That’s when they’re working properly, and can see beyond their own noses. Unfortunately in the UK right now, the bulk of the mainstream media are being suckered into lazy journalism, and are allowing the Coalition government to completely manage the news cycle. Let’s hope they, or Labour, wake up to it pretty soon.
FINAL UPDATE: 26 December 2010
As always, The Economist has an excellent analysis this morning:
VINCE CABLE’s humiliation at the hands of the Daily Telegraph has, as expected, turned out to be just the first in a serialisation. The newspaper has published unguarded remarks from other senior Liberal Democrats in recent days, all of which were given to journalists posing as ordinary voters. Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader who has recently beefed up his backroom team with some high-powered media advisers, has done a good job of attacking the coalition as a “sham” and the Lib Dems as two-faced poodles on a Tory leash. For at least three reasons, however, I suspect that the revelations of recent days have not done much enduring damage to the coalition.
First, none of the published remarks other than Mr Cable’s are particularly shocking. Paul Burstow, a minister most voters will never have heard of, told an undercover reporter: “I don’t want you to trust David Cameron… in the sense that you believe he’s suddenly become a cuddly Liberal. Well, he hasn’t. He’s still a Conservative and he has values that I don’t share.” Enough to make Mr Burstow’s next encounter with the prime minister a cringing, forelock-tugging one, but hardly a vicious attack on Mr Cameron. Norman Baker, an only slightly less anonymous Lib Dem, said of George Osborne that he “has a capacity to get up one’s nose”. By the standards of the bile usually aimed at the chancellor of the exchequer by Labour and others, that is virtually a kiss on the cheek. Mr Baker went on: “I mean, there are Tories who are quite good and there are Tories who are, you know, beyond the pale, and, you know, you have to just deal with the cards you’ve got.” How incendiary. Finally, today, Jeremy Browne, a foreign office minister, is quoted as describing Tory views on immigration as “uncharitable” and that party’s allies in the European Parliament as “an embarrassment”. As a way of bringing to an end the Telegraph’s drip-drip release of stories, it is more of a whimper than a bang.
Second, the story is now as much about the rights and wrong of the Telegraph’s investigative work as about the revelations themselves. Bagehot is not alone in feeling queasy about the potential entrapment involved, and about the curious order in which the various remarks have been published. Interestingly, many of the victims of the sting, including Mr Cable himself, have felt confident enough to mount a fight-back against the newspaper, accusing it of imperilling relations between politicians and the constituents they represent. MPs exposed by the Telegraph for fiddling expenses 18 months ago did not stick up for themselves in the same way; they knew the public were irate and deaf to their excuses. I suspect Mr Cable and his colleagues detect a more ambiguous public mood this time around, thanks to the Telegraph’s methods.
Finally, it has become increasingly clear to me that voters have a savvier approach to coalition politics than professional Westminster-watchers. They know that the government is a marriage of convenience born out of parliamentary arithmetic, not some kind of transcendental, post-political Shangri-la. They know that the two parties don’t much like each other, but agree on enough to make administrative co-habitation viable. They probably assumed that each side, in private, would be far more scathing about the other than has been suggested by these recent revelations. The kind of fissures, faultlines and fall-outs that captivate journalists locked in Westminster’s bubble of micro-politics were, I wager, factored-in by the public when the coalition was launched in May.
At Tuesday’s Downing Street press conference, held after the publication of Mr Cable’s remarks about his ability to bring down the coalition but before the release of his quotes about Rupert Murdoch, it was striking (but not surprising) how many of the questions from the floor concerned the ornery business secretary. When, at the end, a foreign journalist asked Mr Cameron about his thoughts on the mixed signals being sent by Iran about its nuclear ambitions, it had the chastening effect of a strict teacher walking into a classroom of rowdy children. The “lobby”, the collection of journalists who cover politics at Westminster (of whom I am one), has many virtues. A sense of perspective is not always one of them.