20 December 2010

Cadaver politics on tuition fees...

"I believe these reforms are fair, progressive - and above all necessary - in our national interest..." Every Tory coalition spell seems to employ some combination of this three-part incantation. I want to focus on the idea of necessity, the vision of (un)politics implied and the metropolitan Left's collective devolution blindness. Last week, the Scottish government published Mike Russell's Green Paper, Building a Smarter Future: Towards a Sustainable Scottish Solution for the Future of Higher Education

Tory figures - and pressmen who've accepted their axioms - gave a rather paradoxical impression in their discussion of these issues last week. Isn't this awfully unfair on English students? Aren't southerly youngsters getting a raw deal? Their answer is invariably yes, and as I noted in a recent piece paraphrasing my old friend Robespierre, leads to the rejoinder that if education spending is higher, all spending must be inequitably too high. This seems curious, since it implies that Tory figures like Peter Bone MP believe that if the Liberal-Tories could afford it, all students across the United Kingdom would benefit from free higher education. We can't afford it, hence, if you can afford it, you must be receiving an "unfairly" high distribution of public spending. On one level, this is simply wrong - and it should be conceded that such funding disparities would be perfectly possible if there was absolute equality in public spending. However, its important to ask why is the argument wrong in the way it is? Why this logic and this objection and not others?

I'd suggest that the pervasive tendency to cite necessity as a coalition justification strategy is crucial here. We are lead to believe that fees were introduced in England, simply reflecting "funding realities". It is contended that the Coalition's conclusion was reached on the basis of fundamentally depoliticised choices made in a benign technocratic-managerial vein.  That is not to say that one couldn't make a consciously politicised account of why would-be graduates should stump up for education, justified in contradistinction to other political beliefs and commitments. However, it is crucial to recognise that the Westminster government isn't making this case. Devolution and in particular, the choices of Scottish devolved institutions on higher education funding - fundamentally assails this twin account of tuition fees as de-politicised necessities. That, in part, goes some way to explain why the Green Paper provoked such hysteria - it threatens to make visible the fundamental falsity of the Westminster coalition's position, which is a choice among choices - and undoubtedly "political" in the sense that the policy choices are governed by particular ideological commitments (however minimally conscious individuals and parties may be about their selective philosophies). It is for this reason that a critique of our politics based on the idea that it is post-ideological is basically unhelpful - since it obfuscates the extent to which  the necessities of mainstream "common sense" are furnished or absent, based on one's theoretical orientations. What is surprising, given devolution's powerful potential to subvert coalition rhetoric, is the continuing absence of any devolved consciousness on the British left, which still seems to dream of Britain as a unitary state. This theme was taken up somewhat by Gerry Hassan has a piece on "Ed Miliband and the Limits of the New Socialism". 

It strikes me as interesting that so little of this rumination and critique on the Left refers - even obliquely - to Britain's altered State and devolution in Norn Iron, wurselves and our Welsh friends. I say this not in the spirit of a sour appurtenance but to note how curious it is at the level of the political imagination and of theory. I've encountered countless metropolitan articles talking about "the" NHS and so on - all of which obfuscate differences (potential and actualised) within the UK as it stands. Why do these not interest the London-minded left who seem to occupy a phantasm unitary UK which (if it ever existed in an unproblematic form) ceased to make sense long ago? Generally, folk have responded to these and similar questions by invoking solidarity across borders and an interest in the lot of your fellow man. However, if we accepted this logic, the invisibility of Britain's collapsed centre in their arguments should simply be understood as being elided by simplification. Devolved consciousness is present, but bracketed to produce direct prose and clear arguments. I'd argue that there's much more to it than this - and the striking absences here are more than simply incidental but fundamentally reflect a limited vision of British politics. Whether on BBC Question Time, in parliament, or in the pages of the metropolitan press - this is guilty cadaver politics and the lurching, stumbling steps of a zombified Britannia.

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