BLAIR ON A KNIFE EDGE: I'm watching a live stream at the moment from Parliament of the debate over the bill to introduce "top-up" fees for students in British universities. Vote due any minute. What a brou-haha.

There is little doubt in my mind that Blair's fellow Laborites don't care that much about university fees per se. They're already safely graduated or never went in the first place. What they're really about is punishing him for getting too close to George Bush and the US in general. The issue is a convenient one for that purpose.

That said, for other Britons this issue is one of those lightening rod topics that can leave an American blinking in bewilderment. You want to see a mild-mannered, otherwise pleasant Briton instantly turn into a hissing seven-headed hydra, just say that you don't see anything wrong with somebody paying for part of his university education in the form of a loan to be repaid later. I think there's some British gene that endows every citizen with the ability to recite a sanctimonius speech about the inalienable right to education and preserving university education standards.

British universities, like in many other countries, are in one important sense extremely conservative institutions which act instinctively to preserve their exclusivity, without which 90% of the attraction of working for and attending a university, as opposed to a specialized trade school, would be gone. Any suggestion to upset the balance between students, dozy lecturers and professors and a Niagra of government money to keep the whole thing afloat is mightily resisted.

I remember my British flatmate was militant about introducing university fees. And well I remember the day he got his first term grant check, headed down to west London and bought a brand new stereo with it.

But I am always struck by what seems to me the base hypocrisy of it all: if you argue that full state support, i.e. no fees for universities, is necessary to ensure that everyone has a chance to qualify for university regardless of means, you guarantee that a smaller percentage of people can actually attend since the state can't pay for everybody who wants to go. People who are actually in the system will actually tell you that it's better that way: if you let too many into universities the standards will slip, old stick, and we can't have that. We'd be like America then.

When I was a student there people would bring this up out of the blue. You could be talking about the weather, comment that it looks like more rain, and someone would say, "of course, you have a much higher drop-out rate in American universities." Sure, Nigel or Martin or Phyllida, whatever you say. Trouble is, the American quality ratings had caught up with and started to pass the British even back in the 80s. Christopher Hitchens has written often about how this misperception in Britain persists to this day against all the evidence.

Any old way, a large chunk of Labor seems to be more than willing to see Tony Blair, the best leader this formerly anemic party has had since the war, go down over this one, single issue.

And that red-hot issue again: to require university students to pay a modest fee, the merest fraction of the total cost of their three years of boozing, partying, sleeping late and occasionally attending a lecture. The "fee" would be paid only years later after leaving university, entering the work force and achieving an income level deemed sufficient to support repayment of what is in effect a loan.

UPDATE: World service just announced the results - Blair wins this one by five votes. But the moderator quotes rebel Labor MPs who have vowed to keep pushing Blair to the edge and bringing the issue back to the floor.

Steve | 20:34 |