One of the most popular political positions is opposing university tuition fees. To many people — and pretty much the whole of the Left — university education should not burden its recipients with debt. For a lot of people, indeed, it should be free at the point of delivery. Student contributions — according to Ed Miliband, the Liberal Democrats before they were Tories, the NUS and many others — should at most consist of a graduate tax. I disagree. The report issued today by Lord Browne and attacked by the party who set it up (Labour) can be implemented in a way that is progressive. It could be the basis for a fair and equable solution to the question of university funding.
The principles behind “top-up fees” are sound. Graduates benefit from having taken their degrees, so therefore they should contribute to their cost. They should contribute in a reasonable and affordable way — supported by the state — to the cost of their education. As they are incurring the cost, students have a positive incentive to make the most of their time at university (in academic life and beyond) and have a self-evident right to demand a high-quality course and high-quality support.
Furthermore, top-up fees are fair because no-one pays more than the cost of their education. It would be grotesque if we demanded that the rich pay more for food in the supermarket than the poor; it is the same for education. It is one thing to subsidise the poor; it is quite another to over-charge the rich. A simple graduate tax (say, 0.5% or 1% of income) would be unfair on the wealthy. It is not a crime to be wealthy — it’s not even a moral failure! No-one should be obliged to pay for more than they have received.
The top-up fees described in the Browne Report can be fair furthermore because their effective cost is dependant upon future earning, not upon parents’ income. This is in contrast to the maintenance loans of the current system, which need to be examined. The assessment of a 21-year-old based upon their parents’ income is unique. In every other aspect, a 21-year-old is considered an independent person. Like a graduate tax, top-up fees whose effective cost is based upon future income are fair.
The difficulty therefore is not with the principle of the top-up fee but with the pragmatics of its implementation.
Will Straw at Left Foot Forward explains that under Lord Browne’s proposals someone with a salary starting at £40,000 or at £60,000 will pay less than someone starting £20,000. This is unfair and must be addressed.
As mentioned above, the question of maintenance loans has not been addressed. How will these be handled under the new system? Will they be fairer? Will they cease to base funding upon parents’ income?
Finally, and crucially, the question should be one of presentation. A graduate tax would not be off-putting to students because it is not a debt incurred. In many ways (e.g. structured and graduated payments, income-based costing, no repayments for people with no income), these top-up fees would not be a debt as we conventionally understand it. Indeed, this system could be as affordable as any other. However, if this is not conveyed to school leavers, they will be put off university, above all the poor. If it is presented as a debt, it will be intimidating — what £30,000 debt wouldn’t be, to someone who has never had a full time job? If the government can find a way of presenting the system so that the language of debt is not invoked, and so that genuine reasonableness of the proposal can be seen, top-up fees need not be off-putting to poor students.
Top-up fees are not evil. The y are not necessarily unfair, though they certainly can be. The second Blair government was correct to bring them in; the current coalition has a strong argument for increasing them, but they need to do so in a way that is progressive and fair. The current proposals do not meet this test, but there is every reason to think that, with a little Simon Hughes prompting, they could.
You can always tell what kind of Christian someone is by the word they use to describe the principle service of the Church — Eucharist, Mass, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion… This is above all true among Anglicans — if you say “mass”, you are a strict Anglo-Catholic; if you say “Lord’s Supper”, you are “low church”; if you say “Eucharist” or “Holy Communion”, you are treading a delicate path between the two.
We do it unconsciously, as part of the church background from which we come. I show my moderate Anglo-Catholicism in my habit of saying “Eucharist”, with the odd “mass” thrown in for good measure, and in my complete avoidance of “Lord’s Supper”.
The most holy service the Church has, therefore, becomes a microcosm for the divisions in the Church. This is tragic, because in using “party” terms, we forget their meanings. Moreover, their meanings — and the meaning of the rite itself — are best understood taken together.
First things first, thanksgiving. When we come to the Eucharist, we should above all come to give thanks to God for what he has done for us. As Christians, we should “at all times and in all places” praise and thank God. A great Anglican prayer, the General Thanksgiving, sums this up well:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you most humble and hearty thanks
for all your goodness and loving kindness.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
Gratitude, both for the Eucharist itself and for all the other graces of God, should be our principle thought when we approach the altar.
The Lord’s Supper
Indeed, we give thanks above all because we are about to be given something of enormous importance. Our souls are sustained only because they are fed and nourished by the gifts of God. Whether or not we believe that in taking part in the service we receive a transfusion of God’s grace, all Christians would acknowledge the central place of God’s grace in sustaining them. The meal that we receive in church, gathered around the altar, represents every grace we receive from God.What is more, when we gather for the meal in church, we recall another meal, when Jesus and his disciples gathered in the upper room. By mimesis — that is to say, by liturgically and symbolically re-enacting that event — we are connected to it. That is to say, we are connected to the disciples and, through that connection, we also can be counted among those whom Jesus calls “friends” (John 15.15). We may be limited by our temporal existence but, in faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit who is beyond time, we are linked to that meal in that room.
The idea of connection is also the central idea of the words “Holy Communion”. There are two principle ideas of connection involved. The first is that with God. As individuals, we approach the altar and, through the bread and wine, share in something of the life of God. Indeed, “communio” (the Latin word from which “communion” is derived) means “sharing”. Since it is above all the property of God to be holy and to love, we share in God’s holiness and in his love.
On the other hand, we do not approach the altar merely as individuals — we come as a people. One of the most ancient parts of the liturgy is the priest’s declaring “God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people” (the translation of the Latin “sancta sanctis”) — we come together and receive that holiness and love together. By the shared meal, a connection is made between us. The connection is with those in the church around us at the time, with all those who are currently celebrating the service and with all those who ever have, even those who lived two millennia ago.
(This point is strengthened particularly if we acknowledge the Real Presence of the body and blood of Jesus Christ — there is a real and substantial link between what is present on the altar in 21st century Britain and what was present in 1st century Palestine.)
“Mass” is perhaps the most divisive word of all. To Protestants of many persuasions, this word (along with incense, devotion to saints and auricular confession) smacks of “popery”. However, there is no particularly Catholic meaning to it. Rather, the word derives from the ending of the service, when a minister gives the dismissal (“Go in peace” is a frequent modern translation.) The Latin original is “ite missa est”, which approximately means “go, this is the dismissal”.
The word, therefore, carries meanings of going and of sending out. These ideas are universal ones — we participate in the mass and, at the end of it, we, the people of God, go out into the world to do God’s work. The mass is not just a private thing, something that happens behind closed doors: its consummation is in God’s holy people taking God’s love and holiness out into the world. We become holy and then we go out, so that we might make the world holy.
Not just words
Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Mass — though they may be words, they are not just words. They point to powerful theological ideas. We might use one or another out of habit or conviction, but ultimately they all matter.
We give thanks; we receive spiritual nourishment; we celebrate our link to the historical man Jesus; by the power of the Holy Spirit we are joined to those around and before us; and we are sent into the world to do God’s work. This, surely, is the very essence of Christian faith.
Human beings have the odd habit of gathering together and then bursting out into song. It is one of the most universal habits: we can think of people of pretty much every religion singing in their collective worship, or of sports fans urging their teams on with anthems, or of the WI singing “Jerusalem”, or of the Labour Party singing “The Red Flag”, or indeed of tens of thousands of rock fans at a concert. Just about everyone does it, whether blessed with musical talent or not (I very much belong to the latter category). But what is it about singing that inspires people?
Firstly, singing tends to be one of the great acts of defiance. Think, for instance, of the civil rights movement in the US in the 50s and 60s. The movement was, in many ways, defined by the protest songs that were sung. “We Shall Overcome”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “A Change Is Gonna Come”, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”: when basic human rights were refused, when appeals were ignored, when people’s voices were denied, they broke out into song. And people listened. Injustice was broken down not by violence or by rebellion, but by people refusing to be moved and singing together. Obviously there was far more to political change than just the singing, but the songs became emblematic of defiance like nothing else. When people start to sing, it tends to be difficult to get them to shut up.
Singing is, above all, something that unites people. This is, of course, present in protest songs, but we can see it in far more places than that, often very trivial. Look, for instance, at national anthems: they are symbols of national unity far more than flags or people, because we all participate in making them. Then look at a football match. I am a (very unreliable) support of Liverpool, and one of the most powerful things I have ever heard is the sound of tens of thousands of people singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”: it is the sound of those people united in a common cause (however trivial) and that unity is deeply moving. On an even more trivial note, I have been part of crowds at rock concerts in massive stadia where everyone is singing together. I’ll never meet most of them, yet for one moment we are united in something bigger than any of us. That human connection, which perhaps appears superficial at best, is actually profoundly moving. It isn’t the reason for the connection that is so powerful but the mere fact of it.
This is, perhaps, the crux of the matter. By singing, we go beyond the immediate. We say more than we actually say. I was recently at the funeral of a family friend. He wasn’t a religious man, and in general it wasn’t a particularly religious service. Nevertheless, the friend was Welsh and naturally we sang the great Welsh hymn “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer”. Of course, it has beautiful words and just about the greatest tune ever written; nevertheless, when we sang it together we were doing more than just repeating words: we were sharing in a defiance of the power of death.
Singing is not just something we do. In many ways, it’s something we have to do. I read a blog entry last year by Nick Baines, the ever-wonderful Bishop of Croydon (The ‘singing’ thing) where he quoted the poem “Thing” by the song-writer Leonard Cohen:
I am this thing
that wants to sing
when I am up against the spit
and scorn of judges
O G-D I want to sing
THIS THING THAT NEEDS TO SING
I love that.
Amid the heartache of seeing a Tory government in power, this week has actually seen some overdue and highly welcome news: women will now almost certainly be ordained as bishops in the Church of England. The 16-year “experiment” with women priests will end as it was always going to end, with the admission of women into all degrees of holy orders. This is, I think, just about the biggest step the Church of England has taken since at least the mid-nineteenth century, and arguably since the Reformation itself.
I know a lot of people don’t understand why the Church has thus far failed to ordain women. From many points of view, the refusal to do so looks like antediluvian bigotry. Women in church, it seems, are to be banished to backstage work: polishing the brass, arranging the flowers, making the tea. How, we might ask, can the Church speak to modern people — especially, but not exclusively, women — when it excludes half the population from its most significant roles, solely on account of their sex? How can a church that preaches the equality of all people under God also preach that half of them are incapable of high office?
The thing is that most opponents of the ordination of women accept these arguments. Most would say that the ordination of women is highly desirable in many ways and that they admire and respect those women who have been ordained and their ministry. In many ways, they would argue that women should be ordained but, regrettably, they can’t.
The argument runs that ordination is something that was instituted directly by Jesus during his earthly ministry, directly conferred upon the Twelve by him. The ordination of deacons, priests and bishops in the modern Church, therefore, derives directly from this ordination by Jesus. As the early Church, from which our institutions claim to derive, did not ordain women, despite the prominent roles that women had in that early Church, we are to believe that — regrettably, women cannot be ordained. The ordination of women as bishops, moreover, is particularly difficult, because other priests’ ordination depends on the validity of the ordination of the bishop who ordained them: since a woman cannot be a bishop, any priest that she ordains is in fact not a priest. It is generally not a question of misogyny or bigotry (admittedly, sometimes it is) but of genuine, deep-held conviction in continuing adherence to Church tradition. For my part, I cannot help but respect that.
On the other hand, I cannot agree with it. Firstly, the claim that our orders as they are currently instituted derive directly and without change from the early Church stretches credulity to the limit. The concept of holy orders has changed across centuries. Secondly, and following on from this first point, holy orders should be seen as an order of the Church, not directly of God. Such an account does not reduce their value or their significance, because it assumes a very high view of the authority of the Church. The Church is, as tradition holds, the body of Christ, the institution that carries out Christ’s continuing action in the world. Surely, surely, it has the capability of ordering its own governance.
For the Church to observe tradition, therefore, is not for it to slavishly repeat the past. Being true to tradition should not hold the Church back but allow it to be radical in every age: being faithful to the past means recognising that the Church is at once part of its cultural context and beyond its cultural context. To ordain women, then, is to recognise that in this case the Church can learn from its cultural context.
This decision, then, is not the Church’s weakness in bowing to cultural mores, but strength in recognising its own failures.
(I should note that the arguments I have presented above are not the only ones against the ordination of women. One powerful argument is that the Church of England by itself does not have the authority to govern its own orders, but must do so in co-ordination with the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox; another is that the ordination of women is a barrier to ecumenism. Frankly, an ecumenism that excludes women from holy orders is an ecumenism I do not want, while the arguments about authority demonstrate a level of selective ignorance when it comes to Anglican history.)
The unholy trinity of Cameron, Clegg and Murdoch (those unlikely allies) has come to power, and they must succeed. This is true not just because I want the best for the country but because this coalition has the chance to show us what a PR world could be like.
This was, ironically, a point David Cameron made at the joint press conference this afternoon, although I fancy he didn’t realise it. He was talking about the change that coalition government could bring to our political life: this is potentially a new era of collegiality and consensus government. It is, in fact, what would happen after any PR election. One of the questions made this suggestion to Cameron, and he repeated his hackneyed arguments about “backroom trading” and totally ignored the question.
The fact is that, should a coalition bear fruit, there will be no substantial arguments against PR. We will have seen that a government with a genuine majority can be as credible as one with a fictional majority.
Here, however, is also my biggest fear. If the Tories and LibDems fail to make a coalition work, it will be a powerful argument against PR. We’re relying on David Cameron, therefore, to prove that PR can work.
So now we know. A Tory-LibDem alliance is about to be confirmed; David Cameron will become Prime Minister tomorrow and he will have LibDems in his cabinet. This has seemed like the most likely result all day. There was momentary excitement last night (that I got thoroughly caught up in) that the LibDems might not be able to form a deal with the Conservatives. This is the scenario that is the most secure.
Here, actually, is the key point. Over the last few days, the wonderful #dontdoitnick Twitter hashtag has been ubiquitous, urging the LibDem leader not do enter a deal with the Tories. It might seem that he has in fact “done it” and given in to the Tories. From the point of view of the liberal-progressive (i.e. me), this is rather disappointing. On the other hand, Nick Clegg actually had no choice. In reality, it was Labour politicians who pushed him into David Cameron’s waiting arms.
Labour MPs, both backbenchers and Cabinet members, have made it abundantly and publicly clear that this deal would not enjoy support from the Labour benches, for a variety of reasons. Some abhor the idea of any voting reform (I am very sad that this tribalism is still true in the Labour Party), but just as many want to “acknowledge that Labour lost the election” (I understand this objection, despite the lack of certainty that our electoral system gives about what “winning” and “losing” mean).
We will, then, have David Cameron as Prime Minister. I’m sorry about this — it’s the first time since I learned to speak that we’ve had a Prime Minister that I personally dislike. The Liberal Democrats seem likely to be destroyed at the next election: firstly, they’ll be abandoned by Scottish voters and tactical-voting Labour supporters in the South and, especially, the South-West because they “propped up” the Tories; secondly, every unpopular decision made over the next parliament will be blamed on them. I feel sorry for them, but I have a feeling the next couple of years could be highly, highly entertaining.
Those of us who had the BBC News channel on in the background have had a particularly exciting afternoon: Nick Clegg wants to open negotiations with Labour; Gordon Brown will stand down as Labour leader and Prime Minister. (If you were watching Sky News, you had Adam Boulton and Alistair Campell coming entertainingly close to a fist-fight.)
There’s been some particularly ugly stuff in the press and from Tory talking heads over the last few days. He hasn’t been “squatting” or “clinging on”; the idea that there would need to be an explicit vote of no confidence to get him out was always particularly absurd. Gordon Brown respects the British people and the British constitutional conventions. He is hardly a crazy megalomaniac (and as I write this, I see Evan Harris and Tony Benn on the BBC making exactly this point). He is resigning because Labour did badly last Thursday, not because anyone (including Nick Clegg) booted him out.
A Labour-LibDem coalition would almost certainly be stronger than a Tory-LibDem one. It’s true that there are more votes in the latter coalition, but there is almost certainly more consensus in the former. A LibDem-Tory government could survive, but it probably couldn’t pass that much legislation. Any coalition government will be a compromise or a set of compromises; a LibDem-Tory coalition government would always struggle because the two parties would have to make massive compromises pretty much constantly. The SNP and Plaid Cymru (along with the SDLP and Lady Hermon) would support a Labour-LibDem coalition because it in their interests (the alternative, a Tory government, would have greater cuts across the UK, including in Scotland, Wales and NI).
There will be areas of discord between Labour and the LibDems. The LibDems have something of a reputation for being ruthless campaigners; there are major policy disagreements over civil liberties (e.g. ID cards) and immigration. Nevertheless, they are in many ways comfortable coalition partners. Ultimately, many people would see such a deal as the ultimate consummation of the New Labour project.
The major problem with such a deal, then, is not the arithmetic but the presentation. If a Labour-LibDem deal is successful (and I’d give, say, 2/3 odds on it at the moment), there will be a prime minister whom the Mail will call “unelected”. As I write this, William Hague is making exactly that point (he sounded pretty bitter to me — he obviously did feel “betrayed”). This is the unfortunate consequence of the manner in which our electoral system is becoming presidential. The TV debates were billed as “prime ministerial debates”. Leaving beside the syntactic peculiarity of that phrase, they should have been billed as “party leaders debates”. The three men were presenting their parties’ programmes, not their own. Our system used to be a collegiate cabinet system; a PR system would probably bring that back to some extent. This is the system we have, it is legitimate and it is based in centuries of historical tradition.
How do we decide who has been elected, after all? I suppose we could have the right-wing press make the decision (the role of “kingmaker” would sit more happily on Rupert Murdoch than on Nick Clegg), but I’d rather have our parliamentary system decide. In many ways the Labour Party has not been obliterated; in many ways the Tories have utterly failed to present themselves as government-in-waiting.
Nick Clegg, then, has a glorious chance. He might still go for the Tories, and would get a decent deal by doing so, but he has the chance that no Liberal leader since Asquith has had to change the UK for good.
And as a footnote, thank you Gordon Brown! Mr Brown has spent 13 years in Downing Street and has been part of the transformational New Labour project. He has not been the disaster as PM that the right-wing press (and Adam Boulton, if you think them separate) would have you believe. I like the man and respect him for the principled and admirable manner in which he has approached the last few days.