Well, now they have been found out. A lot of Lib Dems are learning that, when you are in government, you have to make decisions, and often there is no right or easy answer. Never mind the student union idealism, they are learning the truth of Bismarck's saying that "politics is the art of the possible". Not what you would like in an ideal world; not what you would have with unlimited resources; not what makes you look caring and kind - but what can be achieved in the real world with what you have got.
I've seen many young workers develop and be promoted to management positions. It's amazing how they suddenly stop moaning about "them up in the boardroom" and their "stupid" ideas when they have to actually make business decisions - with real consequences - for themselves. It's quite heart-warming. We all have to grow up eventually. Suddenly, making 'unbreakable' pledges to capture the youth vote doesn't seem such a good idea.
It has led to an interesting position for the Lib Dem MPs. Do you stick to your principles and vote against tuition fees, because that was what you promised? Do you accept reality and vote against, despite the 'broken promise' accusation? Or do you abstain?
I like to think I am a fairly moral person, and I would not break a solemn promise without a very good reason, if at all. I can respect MPs who vote against the rise in fees, if only because I respect the principle that your word should be something that you do not break lightly. And yet, the cost of this, in personal terms, is small. You get into trouble with the Party, and some of those nasty Tories will be cross with you, and you may be told that you are putting the future of the coalition and even your own party at risk. But that's all grown-up stuff. You gain the warm approbation of all those students for being a 'man of principle', and you can go to your grave saying that you kept your word.
I have more time for those MPs who decided to vote with the Government. That was a hard decision to make, I am sure, but realistically it is the only way forward, and the country will be grateful in the long term. They will have heeded Keynes's famous words:
When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?Going from the freedom of permanent opposition into the gruelling pit of government at a time of huge financial crisis will certainly have presented new facts and new perspectives to the incoming Lib Dem cabinet, and if that has caused them to change their minds à la Keynes, then I can respect them for that. The price is the anger of all those who supported you, and a brick through your window if you are Norman Baker, so changing your mind is not cost-free. That makes it all the more admirable, in my book.
Abstention is an attempt to gain the approval of both sides, and is pathetic. You can say to your supporters "well, I promised not to vote for higher fees, and I haven't". And you can say to your party hierarchy "as a matter of principle I cannot vote in favour, but I will not stand in your way". You are trying to get the best of both worlds. It's spineless and feeble. Go with your principles, one way or the other, for God's sake.
Depending on how things turn out over the next few months, this could be the end of the Liberal Democrat party. Their core vote could turn against them - some of the voxpops I have seen on TV have been bitter - and there's no-one waiting to take the place of their traditonal supporters. It would be a rich irony if the events that finally made the Lib dems grow up and become adult about politics were the events that finished them as a mainstream party.