The Government is only reducing student fee interest rates because of the threat posed by Labour

Matthew Norman
How could it be considered anything other than extortion to charge a graduate more than 12 times the current Bank of England base rate, and double the present inflation rate?: Getty

Do you ever get the feeling that this country is finished? That this is something deeper and worse than those nervous breakdowns which scramble the brains of post-imperial powers as they try to adjust to reduced global status? That Britain is irreversibly screwed?

It may be a coincidence of timing, but a trio of stories coalesce to paint a triptych of a democracy so dismally divorced from its supposed values that melodramatic despair is the reflex response.

On Monday, when the Government finally announces its university funding review, the odds are that it will soften the horror. It might freeze tuition fees at the present and horrendous £9,250 per annum. It is expected to reduce the top interest rate on student debt.

Even if it does the latter, the question is why in the name of sanity it allowed annual interest on loans to reach 6.1 per cent? How could it consider it other than extortion to charge a graduate more than 12 times the current Bank of England base rate, and double the present inflation rate? Regardless of how many debtors will ever pay that rate, or anything at all, what message did it think it was projecting by applying the financial mores of the payday lender to higher education?

Any government retreat will have nothing to do with decency, and everything to do with the electoral pressure imposed by the popularity of Labour’s lavish promise to scrap the fees entirely. This is how what we dignify as our system of democracy works, and why it is sometimes hard to quell the suspicion that benign dictatorship would be the better option. When there are no votes or too few to matter at stake, the Government doesn’t just turn a blind eye to injustice. It actively deepens and perpetuates it.

While it may be about to nuance its approach to student debt, this Government continues to ignore a putrid pair of scandals with little or no electoral implications.

The state of British prisons is worse than one thought. Let that sink in. We already knew that chronic underfunding and acute understaffing had converted the penal system into some kind of crazed Dickensian social experiment in battery farming human beings. It now emerges, by way of an Observer analysis, that two thirds of nicks are treating inmates in unacceptable ways, while 40 per cent are officially regarded as unsafe. Only seven per cent – eight out of 118 – are rated “good” in all four relevant criteria.

Prisoners cannot vote, of course, and if they could there are not enough of them to matter in a general election. The sad thing is that the number of voters who give a damn is no less statistically irrelevant. If it weren’t, this grotesque denial of the most basic human rights wouldn’t be tolerated.

Equally ignored, and for the same reason, is the pus-oozing boil on the body politic that is the mistreatment of the disabled. Again, this outrage has been common knowledge for ages. And once again, it is more widespread and pernicious than previously realised.

The psychotic rage-inducing anecdotes – about the terminally ill being ordered to find work by employees of private French firms with seven minutes’ training; the letters rejecting claims landing on the doormats of the deceased; those who can walk 20 metres but not 50 losing mobility vehicles – have been legion for years. A comprehensive analysis now unearths that a disabled person is more than half as likely again to face benefit sanctions as an able-bodied claimant. This isn’t incompetence or accidental. This is willful, state-sponsored persecution.

The one common element linking this least holy of trinities is that none has any business in a functioning first world nation with pretensions to civilised values. Brexiting Britain may be even less sure of its place in the world than ever, but in one regard its government has finally made a choice. It has decisively rejected the social democratic values of northern and western Europe and embraced the social Darwinism of Reaganite US capitalism that cosily survived the Obama era, and still proudly regards mass victimisation of the weak as a bargain price for a low tax corporate economy.

Lyndon Johnson said the most important thing in politics is knowing how to count, and the yet more lethally cynical Joseph Stalin observed that it isn’t the people who vote that count, but the people who count the votes.

In Britain, the art of politics is a mixture of discounting the relevance of those who don’t vote, and calculating which issues shift too few votes to count. Prisoners are disenfranchised, and the disabled are not natural Tories. The only hope is with the young.

Despite recent demographic analysis of last May’s election casting doubt on a vertical rise in under-25s staggering to the polling stations, alarm about a resurgent pro-Corbyn youth vote will be the solitary explanation for any government freeze of tuition fees or lowering of the top level of interest rate for the minority who will earn enough (£41,000 per annum) to qualify.

If that is what is announced on Monday, it will be a step in the right direction.

But it will be a teetering baby step for a Britain which contented itself with passively observing the betrayal of its young, as with the disabled and imprisoned. What future can there be for a country that lets its rulers transform a world class higher education system into one gigantic University of Wonga?

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