It was the first time that tuition fees had been a major issue in an election - and the Scottish electorate sent a resounding message of opposition to Westminster. Sixty-two per cent voted for candidates who supported the abolition of fees and 73 out of 129 MSPs are in favour of abolition.
Dennis Canavan said that his victory wasn't just a vote against the selection procedures used by the Labour Party - which tried to exclude the Westminster MP from standing - but was a vote for socialist policies, like opposition to tuition fees for students. Fees looked dead and buried, with only the Labour Party being in favour of them, and the issue was set to dominate the negotiations for a coalition government of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems were about to show just what stern stuff they were made of....
Workers' Liberty spoke to Kenny Hannah, President of Glasgow Caledonian Students' Association and member of the National Executive of NUS Scotland.
Prior to the election, Jim Wallace, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats said that the issue of fees was "non-negotiable". Within one and a half weeks this non-negotiable stance had become "election rhetoric", as he put it on Off the Record. Scottish students see this as a shoddy and shameful sell-out. He sacrificed opposition to fees for two seats in the cabinet. He gets to be Minister for Justice - although it should be Minister for Injustice the way he's behaved. He also gets to be Deputy Leader, but that's just a paper position, it's vacuous.
Even despite the deal struck between Labour and Wallace there is still hope. The deal sets up a review. This is the same mechanism they used to scrap grants and bring in fees in the first place. The Tory government, with the support of Labour and the Lib Dems, set up the Dearing Inquiry.
This was an obvious smokescreen to conceal their own plans to do away with grants. The Labour Government used it to buy time, so that they didn't need to reveal their plans before the general election, and as an excuse for their scrapping grants and bringing in fees.
At the time, the Campaign for Free Education pointed this out and referred to the Pit Closures Review that the Tories used to allow public anger at the shutting of the mines to die down so that the event could become a fait accompli. The CFE was right. This latest review is a cowardly way for the Lib Dems to worm out of their election promise and betray students by keeping fees in place. But this manoeuvre may not be enough. Kenny explained: "Canavan or Sheridan will put a Bill for the abolition of fees and Sheridan will put an amendment for full grants. It then depends on the Lib Dems. Only Jim Wallace and two others agree with the deal. The rest are insisting on a free vote. Eight or nine out of 17 say that they will vote for abolition regardless of what the party decides. There are even still a few dissenting voices in the Labour Party. John McAllion voted against the proposal in Westminster and he's now an MSP, for example."
Glasgow Caledonian Students' Association are organising a march from Glasgow to Edinburgh for the opening of the Scottish Parliament as part of a campaign for the abolition of fees, which is supported by the CFE. This is intended to launch the campaign to build pressure on MSPs to carry out the mandate they received from the Scottish electorate and scrap fees.
Fifty marchers from more than 15 institutions will set off from George Square in Glasgow on Monday June 28 and walk 18 miles to Cumbernauld. On Tuesday evening they will arrive in Falkirk for a rally with Dennis Canavan and Tommy Sheridan amongst the speakers. The final leg is to Edinburgh on the Wednesday, and on the Thursday morning there will be a march from Waterloo Place at 9.30 to King's Stables Road for a rally as the Parliament is set to open: again the speakers will include Canavan and Sheridan, as well as Kenny Hannah, the CFE and others. Twenty-nine colleges, the majority of Scottish colleges, are supporting the march, and they are getting encouraging support from trade union branches and from colleges outside of Scotland. This campaign could shore up and solidify free education support in Scotland. Already they have made great gains, shifting the policy of NUS Scotland in favour of free education and getting people elected to the Scottish NEC. Greater gains seem possible in the near future.
The importance of this campaign cannot be understated: there is a very real possibility of inflicting a major defeat on the Government. The effect of beating fees in Scotland would be a huge boost to the campaign in the rest of the UK. Glasgow Caledonian is "urging everyone to get their arses up to Edinburgh on July 1". This isn't just a Scottish issue. If fees go in Scotland then fees in the rest of the UK will be untenable and that's a major headache for Tony Blair. Let's hope we see a domino effect.
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