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Is Hungary the EU's first rogue state? Viktor Orban and the long march from freedom

As a student activist, Orban helped free Hungary from communism. As its prime minister, he practises “illiberal democracy” and praises Trump and Putin.

Young people crowd the restaurants and coffee bars of central Budapest. Tourists ride its trolleybuses and admire its magnificent neo-Gothic parliament building and the imposing Buda Castle across the Danube. It seems the model of a post-communist city, transformed by Hungary’s membership of the European Union.

But appearances can mislead. For an alternative view of today’s Hungary, drive 25 miles west – beyond the monolithic Soviet-era apartment blocks of the capital’s outskirts and the much newer but equally monolithic distribution centres of the multi­national retail chains, to the rural village of Felcsút where Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, grew up and still has a weekend home.

Orbán loves football and played semi-professionally in his younger days. After winning power for a second time in 2010, he had a 3,400-seat stadium built next to his house. Designed by the top Hungarian firm Doparum Architects, it has curvaceous tiled roofs supported by arched wooden columns. And it has a football academy that Orbán’s son, Gáspár, attended, and no fewer than ten practice pitches. Beyond them, another huge building – an indoor training facility, perhaps – is under construction, but my interpreter and I were shooed away when we approached.

The Pancho Aréna – named after the great Hungarian player of the 1950s and 1960s, Ferenc “Pancho” Puskás – cost €15m and was largely financed by donations from big Hungarian corporations after Orbán’s government passed a law making gifts to sports organisations tax deductible.

The only problem is that Felcsút has a population of just 1,800, and its team attracts perhaps a few hundred spectators. Not even the construction of a narrow-gauge railway line from a nearby town, financed with €2m of EU funds, has changed that. Few people use the train.

From the start, the project was controversial. György Varga, a stocky 60-year-old, was Felcsút’s thrice-elected mayor when the idea was mooted. Standing in the unkempt front yard of his son’s small house, he told me how he refused to sell the land on which the stadium stands because the sum being offered was too low. He said the Orbán government responded by passing a tailor-made law that barred people with tax debts, such as Varga, from serving as mayor (a claim the government denies).

For whatever reason, Varga lost his job. He could not find other work because, he believes, people were afraid to upset Orbán, and he had to sell his home. “I suffered because I didn’t want to play these games and [indulge] the great dreams of the prime minister,” he said.

Varga was replaced as mayor by a childhood friend of Orbán, Lörinc Mészáros, a lowly utility repairman. Mészáros gave the stadium the go-ahead, and his tiny company was given a share of the construction work. He began to receive other lucrative state construction contracts. In six years, he has become the fifth richest man in Hungary, worth an estimated €384m, according to a list compiled by the financial website napi.hu. His business empire spans hotels, tourism, real estate, agriculture, banking and publishing.

Mészáros now lives on a substantial property on the edge of Felcsút, replete with a gatehouse and a fleet of expensive vehicles, but we found him at his office in the village. A pale, paunchy man in his fifties, he happened to be coming out of a toilet in the hallway as we entered. “Go away!” he shouted when he realised I was a journalist. “What are you doing here? This is private property. Leave immediately – I’ll tell you nothing.” He slammed the door shut.

The Pancho Aréna – once described by an opposition MP as “a monument to corruption and megalomania” – symbolises what Hungary has become over the past seven years. Superficially, it appears to be a conventional democratic country – an EU and Nato member in which elections take place every four years, people can protest on the streets and state-sanctioned violence is rare. But foes of the “Viktator”, as Orbán is sometimes known, allege that he rules it in an increasingly autocratic and corrupt manner. They claim that his government rewards loyal oligarchs with state contracts, many financed by EU development funds, and that Orbán seeks to gag the independent media, packs key institutions that are supposed to be politically neutral with supporters, crushes dissent and vilifies opponents.

Detractors also say that Hungary brazenly flouts EU laws as Orbán – an admirer of Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan – practises “illiberal democracy”. “You signed up to the values of the union. You have violated every single one of them,” Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, declared during a European Parliament debate on Hungary’s conduct that Orbán attended in April. Indeed, some EU officials believe that if Hungary – the most economically and politically advanced of the eight formerly communist countries that gained membership of the European Union in 2004 – were to apply today, it would be rejected.

So how did a politician who began his career in the 1980s as a young student activist fighting Hungary’s communist regime, a champion of Western-style liberal democracy who helped bring down the Berlin Wall, become what he is today: the standard-bearer for Europe’s populist right who excoriates Brussels, courts Moscow, engages in Soviet-style cronyism and propaganda, erects fences to exclude migrants, threatens academic freedom and targets George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who did so much to help him fight Soviet repression?

“Do you want to be remembered as somebody who liberated your country from communism?” Verhofstadt asked during that debate in Brussels. “Or do you want to be commemorated as an eternal enemy of our open European democratic society?”

***

Viktor Orbán was born in 1963 to a father who was a lowly agronomist and Communist Party member and a mother who was a teacher. At high school, he joined the Young Communist League, but he was a natural rebel who grew long hair, loved Western films and music and questioned what he read in state-run newspapers.

Orbán’s disillusionment with the regime of János Kádár, Hungary’s Communist Party leader from 1956 to 1988, began during his year of national service. He hated the rules and was appalled when it appeared that his unit might be deployed against the Solidarity movement emerging in Poland in the early 1980s.

At Budapest’s elite Eötvös Loránd University, where Orbán joined the law college, students enjoyed relative freedom. Hungary’s “goulash communism” was milder than that of other Warsaw Pact countries: a means of appeasing the populace after Soviet tanks crushed its 1956 uprising against Moscow’s rule and killed several thousand protesters in the capital’s streets.

Orbán fell in with a group of independent thinkers who listened to Radio Free Europe, watched Easy Rider, read Jack Kerouac and J D Salinger novels and abhorred communism. They published a semi-subversive journal, held debates and invited outside speakers – reform-minded communists, veterans of the 1956 uprising, as well as George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire financier and Holocaust survivor who had established a foundation to promote freedom, democracy and civic society in Hungary.

Clever, combative and charismatic, Orbán became the president of the student council. In 1987, he invited Wacław Felczak, a renowned Polish historian, to talk about the Solidarity movement. Igor Janke, Orbán’s biographer, records that when he asked what Hungarian students should do, Felczak replied: ‘‘Form a party!”

The following year, Orbán and three dozen other students from various Budapest universities formed the Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége (Alliance of Young Democrats), or Fidesz for short. Soros provided material support including a photocopier, which was such a valuable means of spreading information in those days that the college authorities stored it in a locked room.

Soviet communism was already crumbling, and the Fidesz leaders were open about their “alternative, liberal and radical” movement. The Kádár regime questioned and warned them, but nothing more. Within a month, Fidesz had a thousand members. Other opposition groups sprang up. The regime responded by offering them round-table discussions on Hungary’s future governance.

The government also agreed to the highly symbolic public reburial in June 1989 of Imre Nagy, the former prime minister who was executed for supporting the 1956 revolution. A Fidesz speaker was invited to address the ceremony on behalf of the country’s youth. Standing on the steps of the Palace of Art in Budapest’s vast Heroes’ Square, before a crowd of 250,000 people and with millions more watching on television, the long-haired, unshaven, 26-year-old Orbán seized the chance to demand free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary.

“It needed courage to do that,” Gábor Fodor, a co-founder of Fidesz and Orbán’s former college room-mate, recalled when we met in his Budapest office. “Nobody knew if it would end peacefully or in violence.”

Some reformers feared that Orbán’s words would provoke another Soviet crackdown, but nothing happened. “After the funeral, it was the end of the communist regime,” Fodor said.

Youthful ambition: Viktor Orbán (left) in the late 1980s. Photo: cink.hu

That September, Orbán went to Pembroke College, Oxford, on a Soros Foundation scholarship. Timothy Garton Ash recalled, in a recent Guardian article critical of today’s “fascistic” Orbán, how “the bright-eyed, seemingly idealistic young Oxford Soros scholar sought me out in my rooms… to talk about democracy”. Within months, Orbán returned to Budapest to contest Hungary’s first free elections in March 1990.

Fidesz’s vigorous campaign featured a poster headlined “You choose!” above contrasting photographs of Leonid Brezhnev kissing East Germany’s Erich Honecker and a young couple embracing. Fidesz won 9 per cent of the vote and 22 seats. Orbán became an MP and party leader.

The Fidesz MPs were fresh, innovative, energetic and irreverent. Their popularity soared but, behind the scenes, the party fractured. Fodor and others favoured collaboration with the liberal Szabad Dem­okraták Szövetsége (Alliance of Free Democrats) against the conservative government of the Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF). “Orbán said, ‘No. This is a boxing match. There’s a red corner and a blue corner. You have to fight against your enemy and our main enemy is the liberal party because we’re in competition,” Fodor recalled.

István Hegedüs, another Fidesz founder and a Fodor ally, said that Orbán was becoming increasingly autocratic. “We experienced a shift in his personality and character,” he told me during an interview in his art deco apartment in central Budapest. “Instead of collective leadership… the party became more and more centralised. He became more and more authoritarian. We were seen as internal traitors.”

Fodor, Hegedus and several others eventually left Fidesz, and with the MDF government struggling to save Hungary’s post-communist economy from collapse Orbán moved Fidesz sharply to the right. Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a former Fidesz MP, believes that this shift was purely expedient. “If there was room on the left, he’d have gone there,” she told me over coffee near the parliament building. “He has this extraordinary drive for power, which we see in few other politicians in Europe.”

Orbán’s repositioning of Fidesz backfired. The media rounded on the party and it won just 7 per cent of the vote at the 1994 elections as a coalition of socialists (ex-communists) and liberals took power.

Undaunted, Orbán set out to rally the vanquished Hungarian right behind a platform of nationalist, Christian and family values. He commissioned surveys, consulted public relations experts and ordered party officials to swap their jeans for suits. “They changed their minds, their values and their political ideologies,” Fodor said of his former party. For Orbán, “the only thing that’s important in politics is to win”.

Though he had always hated the Roman Catholic Church for collaborating with the communists, Orbán now embraced religion. He was confirmed. He remarried his wife, Anikó Lévai, whom he had met at law college, in a church ceremony. Their five children were all baptised. “Whether it was a real change or just for the political image it was hard to tell,” Hegedus told me, but the strategy worked.

In 1998, Fidesz won the election with 26 per cent of the vote and 90 seats, and Orbán, aged 35, became prime minister. But his party narrowly lost to the better-prepared socialists four years later, and again in 2006. Orbán blamed those defeats on a hostile media and liberal establishment, and evidently never forgave them. “Orbán keeps track of who his enemies are, who has done him harm, and who he hates, just as he keeps track of those who – in his mind – have tried to destroy him,” Hegedus told another interviewer.

In 2010, Fidesz swept back to power following the global financial crisis and Hungary’s humiliating bailout by the International Monetary Fund. It won 52 per cent of the vote and two-thirds of the parliamentary seats – a “super-majority” that gave it absolute power. The Hungarian system allowed Orbán to do, in effect, whatever he wanted – and he did. He launched a new Hungarian revolution. Its goal was “the complete refurbishment and renewal of the country”, Zoltán Kovács, his spokesman, told me.

***

On Budapest’s Szabadság (Liberty) Square, a monument, erected by the government in 2014, shows a German imperial eagle preparing to strike the Angel Gabriel, a symbol of Hungary. It is dedicated to “the victims of the occupation”.

The monument fails to mention that before the occupation of Hungary in 1944, the state had collaborated with the Nazis – hoping to regain the territories it had lost through the Treaty of Trianon following the Austro-Hungarian empire’s defeat in the First World War – and had sent thousands of Jews to their deaths.

Outraged by this “falsification of history”, Jewish and other civic groups have created a shrine in front of the monument using the photographs, suitcases, shoes and books of Hungarian Jews despatched to extermination camps, and stage regular protests there.

Listen to opponents of Orbán and you’ll hear that the monument is just one example of how his government is rewriting the past. Another is the House of Terror, a museum occupying the former headquarters of the Hungarian secret police in Andrássy Avenue, which stresses the evils of communism at the expense of Hungary’s shameful role in the Second World War. And last year’s 60th anniversary commemorations of the Hungarian Revolution ignored the leadership of the liberal intelligentsia and gave all of the credit to the protesters on the street.

Orbán has sought to rebuild his country’s national pride, whether it is based on truth or not. He has embraced ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries such as Romania, Slovakia and Serbia who are descendants of the three million people stranded when the Trianon Treaty stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory. He has spent hundreds of millions of euros on new football stadiums and academies, such as the one in Felcsút, in an effort to re-create Hungarian football’s glory days in the 1950s, when the national team beat England 6-3 and 7-1 in the space of six months. He is pumping money into Olympic sports, Hungary having once been a great Olympic nation.

Orbán’s government exhorts Hungarian mothers to have more children (marriage is restricted to heterosexual couples). The preamble to the newly rewritten constitution talks of “an abiding need for spiritual and intellectual renewal” after the “moral decay” of the 20th century. It declares: “We believe that our children and grandchildren will make Hungary great again with their talent, persistence and moral strength.”

Orbán has been content to trample on democratic norms to achieve that goal. In a notorious speech in 2014, he boasted of “breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West” and held up China, Russia and Turkey as models of successful states.

Since 2010, his government has used its super-majority to push through changes to electoral law that manifestly favour Fidesz. It has filled the constitutional court with supporters, eroded the independence of the judiciary and put Fidesz loyalists in charge of key bodies – the prosecutor general’s office, the central bank, the election commission, a new media council – that are supposed to be politically neutral.

“Institutions have been packed with nominees and appointees with often questionable professional careers, very short CVs but very clear loyalties,” Miklós Ligeti, the legal director of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International in Hungary, told me.

Evidence suggests that Orbán’s government also channels huge state contracts, sometimes accompanied by state bank loans, to a handful of friendly oligarchs, who, in turn, are expected to give the government financial and media support.

A study published in March by Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based NGO, found that in six years, four oligarchs with close links to Fidesz won 401 public contracts worth more than €1.8bn. One of the four was Mészáros, Orbán’s childhood friend who shouted at me to go away when I sought him out in Felcsút. Another was Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz, whose energy company, Elios Innovativ, secured contracts for street lighting in more than two dozen towns and cities across Hungary. “Politically organised high-level corruption has become a key feature of the regime,” the American NGO Freedom House declared in its latest Nations in Transit report.

“Hungary is a captured state. It is captured by a clique of business oligarchs and the political elite,” Ligeti said. He added that because the prosecutor general is a Fidesz loyalist, “There’s no hope that the prosecution service would thoroughly, reliably examine and investigate high-level corruption cases.”

At the same time, Orbán’s government has turned the state-owned media into what Gábor Polyák, the head of the NGO Mérték Media Monitor, calls a “propaganda machine”. It hobbles the independent media by withholding lucrative state advertising and using friendly oligarchs to buy hostile television stations, newspapers and websites.

In October, Népszabadság, Hungary’s leading opposition newspaper, was abruptly closed after exposing government scandals. A fortnight later, its parent company, Mediaworks, was bought by a business part-owned by Mészáros, who now controls an estimated 192 newspapers. “Pro-government outlets have come to dominate the market to an overwhelming degree,” Freedom House states. “We live in a sort of grey zone between democracy and dictatorship,” said István Hegedus, the Fidesz co-founder.

***

One morning, I visited Maria Schmidt, the director of Budapest’s House of Terror museum and a close friend of Orbán. In a top-floor office above the museum that would once have been occupied by a Communist Party intelligence chief, I asked Schmidt about Hungary’s approach to immigration.

In 2015, huge numbers of migrants and refugees, many fleeing the war in Syria, began crossing into Hungary from Serbia via Greece, because the EU failed to protect its external borders. Most wanted to continue westwards, Hungary having joined the Schengen Area in 2007. But rather than treating the refugees humanely and upholding their basic rights, Orbán’s government portrayed them as a threat to Hungary’s security, and to the ethnic homogeneity of a country where just 1.4 per cent of its ten million citizens are immigrants. The prime minister labelled the new arrivals a “Trojan horse of terrorism” and a threat to “Europe’s Christian culture and identity”. A 230-mile double-layered fence topped by razor wire was hastily constructed along Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia.

“Because there are just ten million [Hungarians], we can’t accept that 10 per cent of our population are people we don’t know anything about or what their intentions are and can’t be integrated,” Schmidt told me, adding that some would inevitably be terrorists. “Also, in contrast to former colonial powers, we don’t have any sense of guilt towards them. We never colonised them, never bombed them. We have nothing to make up for.”

Orbán, she added, was being unfairly demonised for daring to oppose liberal orthodoxies about immigration and political correctness. He would be remembered as “one of the most significant and influential shapers of Europe”.

A frequent criticism of Orbán is that he creates enemies against whom he can rally his followers and portray himself as their saviour. After the refugee crisis, Brussels became Orbán’s principal enemy – not least for trying to force Hungary to accept 1,294 asylum-seekers under an EU quota system.

Hungary presently receives €5.6bn a year from the EU to spend on infrastructure, job creation and other projects, but Budapest was plastered with signs this spring bearing the slogan “Állítsuk meg Brüsszelt” (“Let’s halt Brussels”). A “national consultation” sent to every household asked questions such as: “In recent times, terror attack after terror attack has taken place in Europe. Despite this fact, Brussels wants to force Hungary to allow illegal immigrants into the country. What do you think Hungary should do?”

Most recently, George Soros has become the government’s favourite punchbag, even though he was Orbán’s patron in the 1980s and has since given more than $400m to civic organisations promoting democracy, free speech, human rights, education and other worthy causes in Hungary. Orbán’s government spent $20m in July on posters and television advertisements showing Soros’s grinning face above the words: “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh.” A spokesman for Soros, who is Jewish, called it a campaign “reminiscent of Europe’s darkest hours”.

The octogenarian philanthropist has come to symbolise the liberal ideals of internationalism, multiculturalism and free movement that Orbán considers such a threat to Hungary’s nationhood. “A common mistake among humanity’s rich and powerful is to believe that they can act like God and be immune from the consequences,” the prime minister declared in his state of the nation address in February. “They declare supposedly incontrovertible facts. They push utopias on to other countries and peoples. They decide what others can or cannot say, and what they can or cannot believe in.”

In April, the Orbán government provoked international outrage by steering legislation through parliament that threatens the future of Budapest’s Central European University – a prestigious institution that Soros founded in 1991 to train the future elites of Europe’s post-communist nations.

In June, Orbán had parliament rubber-stamp a law that will stigmatise NGOs receiving more than $24,000 a year from non-Hungarian sources, by forcing them to declare themselves “foreign-funded” on their websites and publications. That includes 50 or 60 NGOs funded by Soros’s Open Societies Foundation, some of which are quoted in this article. The law “seeks to suppress democratic voices in Hungary just when the country needs them most. It attacks Hungarians who help fellow citizens challenge corruption and arbitrary power,” Goran Buldioski, the director of the Open Society Foundations in Europe, said.

Orbán routinely derides what he describes as the weak, sclerotic, out-of-touch leadership of the EU, but he welcomed Donald Trump’s victory in November’s US presidential election. He was also the only EU leader to congratulate Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial president, for winning the disputed referendum in April that gave him sweeping new powers. And he is much closer to Vladimir Putin than he is to most of his EU counterparts. He has commissioned a nuclear power station to be built by Russia with a $9bn Russian loan. He has criticised EU sanctions against Russia following its annexation of Ukraine.

In a telephone interview after I returned to London, Zoltán Kovács, Orbán’s spokesman, insisted that Orbán’s relationship with Putin was pragmatic, given Hungary’s dependence on Russian energy, and rejected the corruption and other charges levelled against the prime minister.

There was a “systematic effort on behalf of the opposition to discredit the government”, he said. “Most of the NGOs are behaving like primary political actors and that’s a real problem, especially as they are financed by a billionaire who has expressly stated he wants to become the political opposition in this country.”

***

On the May Day holiday, the 13th anniversary of Hungary’s accession to the EU, thousands of young Hungarians marched up the broad, leafy Andrássy Avenue. They waved EU flags and chanted, “Europe, not Moscow!” as they passed the imposing Russian embassy on their way to Heroes’ Square, where their leaders gave speeches. “In Hungary, a system of fear is being built on the Russian model,” one of the speakers told the crowd.

The anti-government demonstration was one of the many organised in recent months by a new, student-led movement called Momentum. The echoes of Orbán’s youthful rebellion against an authoritarian regime 28 years earlier are obvious. But so are the differences.

First, these young Hungarians are allowed to protest. Second, the bald fact is that outside the cosmopolitan Budapest, among older, more conservative and provincial voters, Orbán is far more popular than Kádár’s communist regime ever was and it won a sweeping re-election victory in 2014. The economy is healthy and Orbán’s unashamed nationalism, blunt speaking and brazen defiance of Brussels resonate in a country for which the 20th century was a litany of humiliations. Fidesz has a 20 to 30 per cent lead over its nearest rival in the polls. The opposition is fragmented. Orbán looks certain to win a fourth term next year.

In Brussels, 1,100 kilometres to the west, there is growing concern at Orbán’s hollowing out of Hungary’s hard-won democracy. The European Commission has launched infringement proceedings against Hungary for various alleged breaches of EU laws, and the European People’s Party, the umbrella group for conservative parties, has reprimanded Fidesz.

However, Orbán knows just how far he can push the boundaries. He knows that the crisis-beset EU would not dare invoke the ultimate sanction – Article 7 – which would suspend Hungary’s voting rights and push his country further into Russia’s orbit.

Meanwhile, the EU money keeps flowing, helping Orbán to strengthen the economy, build football stadiums and reward supportive oligarchs. “The EU is funding the first ‘managed democracy’ in Europe,” an astute British observer who lives in Hungary told me. “The money comes from Brussels. The money goes to Fidesz. And the project continues apace.”

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue

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The dustman and the doctor: fairness and the student fees debate

The idea that education – all education – should be free is intoxicating and liberating. But there's a problem.

The most toxic political imagery of the student fees debate dates from 2010. First, there was Nick Clegg brandishing a sheet of paper bearing his election pledge that the Liberal Democrats would vote against “any increase” in tuition fees. Then, a few months later, there was the sight of protesters scrawling graffiti and urinating on the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. Churchill was rapidly restored, but Clegg – who, I am told, did not believe in the pledge when he signed it but could not resist the prospect of those student voters in university towns – never properly recovered.

The issue of how to fund English universities had been febrile for years – long before the 2008 financial crisis, the ballooning of the Budget deficit that followed and the 2010 Lib Dem vote for the vertiginous increase in English tuition fees. (University funding is a devolved matter, with the Scots going their own way.)

In 2004, Tony Blair, enfeebled by the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, had almost been knocked off his prime ministerial perch when he, too, trebled fees, albeit to a mere £3,000, to be paid back after graduation. Gordon Brown’s allies, smelling post-Iraq weakness, hovered over the Labour leader before allowing him – by a sliver – to survive.

The Conservatives have historically been less troubled by the matter. Students largely have not voted in high enough numbers – certainly not for them – to impinge on their chances of electoral success. Meanwhile, the centre left has had lumps kicked out of it while wrestling with the problem of how best to fund higher education. Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto significantly changed Labour’s position, promising to abolish fees altogether; he would also, he told the NME, “deal with” student debt. That half-pledge has now become a vague “ambition” because of its estimated £100bn price tag.

As a piece of campaigning, it worked. By contrast, Ed Miliband got nowhere in 2015 with his promise to reduce fees by a third to £6,000. It was too little, too late to mobilise student voters or their concerned parents, but more than enough for George Osborne, an unrepentant Vince Cable and a nervous higher education sector (sotto voce) to raise questions about Labour’s fiscal rectitude and/or the financial security of universities.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), in its disinterested and peskily rigorous way, joined in – and with a more subtle point, suggesting that cutting fees would benefit higher-earning graduates the most. Those who earned less over their lifetime would, in any event, not have to pay all of the money back.

Until Corbyn’s swashbuckling manifesto simplified matters, or oversimplified them, the left had been tied in knots on the fairness point from the moment that tuition fees were introduced, relatively quietly, in the peak-Blair year of 1998.

The idea that education – all education – should be free is intoxicating and liberating. It is intoxicating because one’s Enlightenment reflexes are happily triggered: the pursuit of knowledge is wonderful; knowledge leads to individual self-fulfilment and should be made available to the largest possible number. We all benefit from a better-educated population, not least by the spread of liberal values. Utilitarians rejoice – the country becomes economically more prosperous, though the evidence for this is irritatingly murky.

It is liberating because it is a beautifully simple proposition, and thus the complexity of nasty trade-offs – between those who go to university and those who don’t, between generations, between different sorts of universities, between disciplines and courses, between funding higher education and funding a zillion other priorities – is washed away by the dazzling premise. Free.

Alas, there is a problem. Once upon a time, a British university education was for the very few. The state, in the form of the general taxpayer, footed the bill. Now, around 40 per cent of 18- to 19-year-olds are at university and nobody in front-line politics is keen on hauling down the number, notwithstanding the occasional hyperventilating headline about useless degrees in golf course management or surfing studies.

The Liberal Democrats’ ill-fated 2010 manifesto had a little-noticed passage that called for scrapping the participation target of 50 per cent – alongside the now ritual aspiration to improve vocational training and apprenticeship schemes, a promise that is yet another reminder of a long-established and debilitating British weakness that nobody seems to know how to reverse. But mass higher education is here to stay – and it’s a good thing, too.

We could have chosen (and could still choose) both to fund increasing numbers of people going to university and to pay for all of their tuition, but that would not have been a self-funding investment – at least, not for a very long time. Other European countries with decent universities have indeed managed without asking graduates to contribute anywhere near as much as ours. The Swedes pay nothing for tuition. Dutch students pay a quarter of their English counterparts. The Germans have proportionately fewer students in tertiary education (though their vocational education is widely known to be heaps better), but their students are at university for longer and they pay very little for the pleasure. You get the picture.

It would require a lot of extra taxation if we were to go down that route – and there are many other competing demands beyond deficit reduction. Yet the issue is not only framed by tax priorities. We can’t easily afford to have the state picking up the tab because – an ugly fact – we are less well off than most northern European countries that charge less. Yes, we are the fifth-largest economy in the world – how could any of us, since the Brexit vote, not know that? – but we are far from being the fifth most economically prosperous country in the EU, once you allow for the intrusion of vulgar reality in the form of GDP per head. On that measure, we sit somewhere in the middle of the pack.

So who pays? Asking students to pay something is not in itself an outrage. The massive social and economic privileges that my generation accrued from our gloriously free university education may now be spread more widely but that has not eliminated the personal advantages that, on average, follow a degree. Graduates are more likely to get jobs, more likely to get better jobs and more likely to keep their jobs in a recession. The Department for Education puts the graduate premium on average at £250,000 before tax over a lifetime for women and £170,000 for men. These figures may be overstated and might not be sustained, but it is overwhelmingly likely that most graduates will still benefit materially from their degrees.

From the starting point in 2004 – long before the deficit soared – Blair and his then education secretary, Charles Clarke, decided that graduates should pay more once they began to earn sufficient money. I remember Blair at the time doing a BBC Newsnight special with an angry audience, packed with students telling him that he was wrecking their lives and had insufficient respect for their contribution to the greater good. A very articulate trainee doctor told Blair that she faced a mountain of debt (those were the days – that would now be several mountains). Blair responded with a range of left-wing arguments – at least, if you are of a redistributive frame of mind. Here are some highlights of the exchange:

Blair: I think it is unfair to ask general taxpayers – 80 per cent of whom have not been to university – when you have got an adult who perhaps wants to get an additional skill and they have to pay for it if they don’t go to university, to say to those people: we are not giving you education for free. And to say to under-fives, where we are desperately short of investment, to say to primary schools, where again we need more money, that we are going to give an even bigger subsidy to university students. Believe me, if I could say to you, “You can have it all for free,” I would love to.

The student, more than matching the prime minister’s passion, was spectacularly unimpressed.

Student: It really infuriates me that you say, “Why should the dustman fund the doctor?” When he has [a] heart attack, he will be pleased that I went to university and graduated as a doctor. Therefore he should contribute towards the cost of my degree.

Blair: But surely there should be a fair balance. He is contributing to the cost of your degree. Five-sixths of the cost of any degree, even after our proposals come in, will be contributed by the general taxpayer.

Not bad for a prime minister who was not often associated with causes dear to the dustmen part of his Labour flock – nor associated with redistribution in general. Of course, the figure of five-sixths paid for by the state is now, since the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees, a great deal smaller. The trainee doctor of 2017 is expected, over the course of their lifetime, to fork out much more. The average student debt is getting on for £50,000.

The current numbers are the result of decisions taken by Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats and David Willetts of the Conservative Party. Unlike Blair, these two men were on the left of their parties, with a firm belief in the importance of education and its positive impact on social mobility. The hike in fees led to protests and occupations but also to universities getting much of the extra money that they needed, even if they were markedly reluctant to say so, doubtless for fear of stirring up their students.

There has been no drop in the participation rate of students from poorer family backgrounds. Quite the reverse – despite Jeremy Corbyn’s personal refusal to believe the evidence. But the repayment of fees means that, in effect, recent graduates pay income tax at a rate of 29 per cent once they earn more than £21,000. (The Department for Education cheerily call this “a contribution”, as if it were voluntary.)

The repayment point could have risen with inflation to ease the load but it hasn’t. That allows the Treasury to recoup more money. Why hasn’t the £21,000 limit been raised? The reason is that, under the current IFS estimates, three-quarters of graduates will not pay back all of their debt after 30 years, at which point it is forgiven. Worse, interest rates on this fee debt are 3 per cent above inflation – and thus nearly 6 per cent above the base rate. That is not quite at Wonga levels but it is patently demoralising and much too steep.

That is far from the end of the matter. Until last September, poorer students received a maintenance grant of up to £3,400 to help with their living costs. For better- off students, the state’s supposition has always been that their parents should and would contribute financially to ensure that their offspring could lead a reasonable life while at university. No government has chosen to make this very explicit: there are only so many enemies you want at any one time on any one issue.

But as the number of students rose, so did the number entitled to the grant, and as part of the strategy to reduce the country’s Budget deficit, those grants were turned into loans, too.

The Labour Party, before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, opposed the change when it was announced but not with much elan. From my Oxford eyrie, I was astonished at how little excitement this generated. Perhaps everyone was exhausted by the failed protests five years earlier.

There is mitigation. It is worth remembering that nobody pays anything for their tuition up front (part of the Blair package, too) and some universities, including mine, have good and reliable schemes to help those from poorer backgrounds and hardship funds for those whose circumstances – normally their parents’ circumstances – change while they are studying.

But I know from direct experience that many students worry a great deal about the debt that awaits them. And if graduates were feather-bedded before 1998 (and that includes me), it is hard not to sympathise now. The debt is too much for too many.

Blair defined the problem correctly – the question of who pays is about striking a fair balance – even if Corbyn seems uninterested in the pain involved in thinking it through and has opted for the easiest answer. But what should that balance be? A graduate tax for those of us who went to university when it was both a much scarcer resource and cheap would offend people who want as little retrospection as possible in the tax system. However, it would do something to deal with generational injustice, a subject on which Corbyn’s credentials are sullied by his fondness for the “triple lock” on pensions.

Labour’s policy of telling English students that they will pay nothing for their tuition is nowhere near as left-wing as it sounds, but it was far too successful a piece of retail politics for anyone in his team to consider going back to the drawing board. So now it is the Tories, facing an energised student vote, who have to engage with the issues for the first time since the tumult of 2010. The least they can do – and they should do it fast – is cut the interest rate. They won’t want to do any of it but, as the man said, the times they are a-changing.

Mark Damazer is master of St Peter’s College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue