In the autumn of 2010, over 50,000 students marched through the streets of London to protest against a trebling of tuition fees proposed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government – and as the then-President of the Cambridge University Students' Union, I led a huge number of them. We were furious, not just at the fee proposals themselves, but because we had once agreed with Nick. We’d agreed with him so much that we’d used our first ever votes for him. Needless to say, that betrayal led to those same voters brutally punishing the Liberal Democrats in the election five years later, with a decisive 30-point swing in the student vote.
By the fees protests rolled around, loudspeaker in hand, with an obligatory sense of wounded betrayal, I would never have thought that I would ever encourage people to vote Liberal Democrat again.
But in 2017, I am a fully paid-up member of the Lib Dems, and proud of it. Last year’s Brexit referendum result was a catastrophe for Britain’s young people, with almost 75 per cent of us voting to remain. As the initial shock subsided, the Tories clarified their plans to crash us out of the single market, restrict our rights to live, work and study throughout the EU, and leave us isolated on the world stage at a time when, in Theresa May’s own words, the world needs the “liberal, democratic values of Europe”.
By September, as Eurosceptic Corbyn obstinately stayed put while his MPs deserted him, and as Theresa May declared that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” and the Conservatives demanded that companies publish the numbers of “foreigners” they employed, I saw that the only party that would fight for our values and battle against a hard Brexit was the Liberal Democrats. Like thousands of others, I signed up.
Brexit is the defining issue of this election and of our political generation. The way it is conducted will go to the heart of all the issues we protested about in 2010. Back then, the broadest aim of our protests was to give our young people the best chance of success in an open, prosperous, tolerant Britain. We must now support the Liberal Democrats to continue that wider campaign; a Tory Brexit undermines the existence of the Britain we believe in, not to mention the very existence of the UK.
The Lib Dems are and have always been proudly European, and (unlike the policy issue of tuition fees) this is fundamental to the party. Labour, despite its sudden clarity on scrapping tuition fees, remains hopelessly divided on its own vision of Brexit. The Liberal Democrats are the only party left to stand up for the 48 per cent, for the millions of voters, particularly the young, who voted to remain part of Europe, to be free to study in Paris or Berlin, to marry in Rome or Amsterdam and to work in Stockholm or Sofia.
Following the narrow victory of the Brexiteers, it seems that is only the views of the most extreme of the 52 per cent that matter to the Tories, who offer only chaos and confusion under the banner of strong and stable leadership.
As a person of Indian descent, I cannot help but be alarmed by Theresa May’s increasingly Ukip-esque promises on immigration, which will have a devastating effect on universities and on public services more generally. Although many voted for Brexit with decent motives, the referendum result, aided by political and newspaper rhetoric on immigration, unleashed some of the worst elements of our society, with hate crime reaching record levels last summer – I got off relatively lightly with an aggressive woman on a bus demanding I go back to where I came from (and I don’t think she meant Barnet).
And, of course, Labour is collapsing into itself, with Corbyn’s team too interested in the ideological purification of their own party to be even a barely competent opposition, let alone to form a government to defend Britain’s place in Europe. Despite Tory and Labour attempts to paint the Liberal Democrats as weak, they are now the only party that is strong in its defence of economically fair, socially liberal values.
Students and young people will make a difference in this election. For those of us who felt so keenly betrayed in 2010, it is time for us to forgive the mistakes that the Liberal Democrats made in office. This election is about more than tuition fees. The Liberal Democrats are the only party that is fighting for an open, tolerant Britain in Europe. Supporting them is the only way to show that we do not want a disastrous, closed, hard Brexit.
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