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If we're going to scrap tuition fees, university should be truly universal

Courses would not be flooded with idiots any more than public libraries are besieged by illiterates.

As many readers will know, I am a defender of student fees. As a socialist, I support universal public services. “Free higher education” was not such a service because it excluded more than half the population. Universities were (and are) available not according to need or demand, as other public services are, but according to “ability to benefit”, defined by the possession of credentials that the children of the affluent are best placed to acquire. Compelling the excluded to pay, through their taxes, for privileged students to reproduce their cultural capital and access elite jobs was, to my mind, wrong.

But Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to abolish fees galvanised young voters. As a result, it is inconceivable that fees can survive in their present form, as Andrew Adonis, a New Labour adviser and minister largely responsible for introducing them, now acknowledges. Nor should they: the Tories, with their insistence that students should be “paying customers” seeking “value for money”, turned fees into a vehicle for the marketisation of universities.

A socialist alternative would be to introduce a progressive graduate tax tied solely to graduates’ incomes and not to the cost of their courses. It is too late for that, however. As an election slogan, “bring in a graduate tax” doesn’t match “bring back free university education”.

There is another socialist answer: turn higher education into a genuinely universal service and open universities, free at the point of use, to all who wish to attend. No, I would not allow anybody to enrol for medicine or civil engineering but, for most subjects, particularly in humanities and social studies, I do not see why proof of “ability to benefit” is required. People can decide for themselves whether studying history, English, botany or even media studies is of any value to them. Courses would not be flooded with idiots any more than public libraries are besieged by illiterates.

“University education for all” is surely an election-winning slogan.

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Theresa May, after spending the past year portraying Corbyn as the devil’s spawn, calls for Labour and other parties to contribute ideas and work for consensus. Only governments too weak to act want “debates”. The 1974-9 Labour government, with a narrow or non-existent majority, was particularly fond of them, launching, for example, a “great debate” on education, fronted by that supremely consensual politician Shirley Williams. Since voters frequently demand that politicians “work together” or “get round a table”, James Callaghan, PM from 1976-9, reckoned he could take the high ground against the opposition leader Margaret Thatcher, the least consensual politician imaginable. Alas, voters preferred the confrontational Thatcher to the emollient Callaghan in 1979.

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My late mother used a variant of the repulsive “N-word” when talking about her local newsagents who were of Asian extraction. I do not think she intended anything derogatory by it. Nor, I imagine, did Anne Marie Morris MP, who was suspended from the Tory whip after using an old metaphorical phrase about woodpiles during a discussion on Brexit. My mother was born in 1911 and left school at 14. She never stood for parliament or even the parish council. She was a school dinner lady. Morris was born in 1957 and studied at Oxford University. She was elected in 2010. She was global marketing director for Ernst & Young, a big accountancy firm. She is a perfect illustration of why, regardless of what Labour governments do, you should never vote Tory.

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Brrng! The postman delivers a package for which I must sign. I open it to find a new novel, Splash!, written by my old friend Stephen Glover, former Independent on Sunday editor, now a Daily Mail columnist. As the title suggests, it attempts a modern-day version of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, which drew on Waugh’s experience of covering Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia (as it then was) for the Mail. Written in Waugh’s style, Splash! imitates his practice of giving characters expressively comic names: there’s an editor called Doodle and a reporter called Blunt. Glover clearly enjoyed writing it and I enjoyed reading it. But anybody hoping for a wounding portrayal of the Mail and its present editor Paul Dacre will be disappointed. Though the cognoscenti will spot similarities – for example, Doodle, like Dacre, doesn’t use a computer at work – they are incidental and inoffensive. Glover’s novel is an apologia for tabloid journalism and a celebration of its role in exposing corruption among the elite.

The best fiction on the press comes from established writers who dabble in journalism only occasionally. Apart from Scoop, my favourites are Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning and Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day.

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In last week’s New Statesman, Xan Rice, celebrating New Zealand rugby union, quoted the American journalist Sam Walker who, in his new book The Captain Class, ranked the 16 greatest sports teams in history. Walker’s list features the New Zealand All Blacks twice but not the West Indies teams which, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, dominated international cricket. They played 29 matches against England over 16 years without a single loss. Over a nine-year period, they won seven out of eight series against Australia, drawing the other. They won the first two World Cups and were beaten finalists in the third.

Walker notes the West Indies’ success but I suspect he didn’t understand how remarkable it was. It transformed a game in which the supremacy of England and Australia had long been unchallenged. The players, mostly descendants of African slaves, were nearly all from working-class backgrounds. Their success inspired socialists as well as anti-racists across the world.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.