Mark Steel: Next term, how to stage a sit-in

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The Independent Online

This is the age of 24-hour entertainment, so at night we can enjoy the sight of the Australian cricket team squirming helplessly, and in the daytime we can enjoy the Liberal Democrats doing exactly the same.

Vince Cable is the most fun, at one point suggesting he wouldn't vote for his own proposal. That would make for a splendid debate in parliament, with Cable saying: "And so I recommend the bill on increasing tuition fees to the House." Then the Speaker would say: "Mr Vince Cable," and he'd get up again and say: "Mr Speaker, am I aware that my proposals are unfair and unworkable, hear hear, and will result in unprecedented debt for future generations, boooo, I'm not telling the truth, and furthermore involve me flagrantly breaching the promise I myself made before I joined my government, nonsense, boo."

Then he'd sit down, get up again and say: "If I may reply to my honourable self I seem unaware that I no longer have any idea who I am, hear hear, and what's more Mr Speaker I keep thinking it's Wednesday."

Some of them are voting for the increase, some against, some abstaining and some want to cancel the whole thing. Simon Hughes will probably suggest they narrow it down to two choices, sing each one and leave the final decision to Dannii Minogue. But what's often missed in their predicament is they've been placed in it by the students. Not everyone accepts this, such as Nick Clegg who said the campaign against the fee increase was putting more people off going to university than the increase itself.

This would be a novel strategy if adopted on a consumer advice programme. The presenter would say: "I've got a letter from a Mrs Wilburton who says her gas company has trebled the price of her energy bill, after promising they would scrap bills altogether, and wonders what can she do? Well Mrs Warburton, do you want to put everyone off gas? Do you? Well shut up moaning."

But students may be even more irritated by the columnists and pundits who tell them their little protests may be futile but they're rather sweet. And "it reminds me of when I was a student and we kidnapped the House terrapin and painted it red in support of the People's Republic of China, and once we went all afternoon without using adjectives as a protest against the way the philosophy lecturer pronounced Aristotle, until I grew up and became sensible and supported the war in Iraq and realised it's unfair to ask taxpayers to fund education because things have changed and now I'm a taxpayer and back then I was student. Still, they do look cute."

But without the protests the Lib Dems could have voted the increases through, with perhaps the odd disgruntled rebel, which seemed how it would go until the first demonstration. Since then the fury of students and their supporters has been constantly in the news. The Government's scurrying for concessions to persuade backbenchers to vote in favour is a product of the protests, and the campaign has clearly put them on the defensive. So now most Lib Dems are admitting they made a mistake, not in breaking their promise but making it in the first place.

In other words the stupid thing about getting caught being unprincipled is suggesting you were ever principled to start with, like a husband being caught having an affair and saying: "I'm so sorry, Darling. I did a stupid thing. I should never have promised that I wouldn't have it off with the next door neighbour."

But the most effective aspect of the protests has been to inspire countless people who, until a few weeks ago, faced the cuts with weary resignation. Now it seems possible there's something you can do, and in almost every interview with a student who's taken part, they say they've learned as much in the last month as in the rest of their course. This suggests the protests should not only be tolerated by the universities, they should be made part of the curriculum.