Why are you a Conservative? This is a question I have been asked many times, not least on the doorstep canvassing and it is a question that as Conservatives we can answer with recourse to strong, clear principles including personal responsibility, a strong society (different from a strong state), a market economy, freedom and fairness.
And whilst many others can lay claim to these principles, as Conservatives we can construct a clear and coherent narrative that links them together.
Coalition government inevitably requires compromise between political parties and such compromise is much easier when those parties share a commitment to similar or non-competing principles or political philosophies. In that instance the compromise is more likely to be in process than in outcome.
Until now the Coalition has focused on policies where both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats are in general agreement on outcome. Disagreement and compromise has broadly centred on the journey rather than the destination and thus, both parties agree that the deficit needs to be reduced but somewhat differ on the scale and speed of the cuts.
The proposals regarding tuition fees and specifically, whether higher-earning graduates should pay more, is possibly the first major instance where the parties face compromise on outcome, as well as process.
This is partly a consequence of the fact that the Liberal Democrats have historically embraced all political philosophies and none, with a Parliamentary Party that has a membership stretching from socialism to liberal conservatism. As an aside, this raises an interesting question, namely whether the Liberal Democrats, no longer a party of permanent opposition, will ultimately have to choose whether they are a party of the centre-right or centre-left.
With regard to tuition fees the outcome where both parties are in broad disagreement is whether it matters to the UK over the medium-term that we lose our highest achieving graduates to overseas universities and ultimately to competing economies. A similar situation arose with the tax on bank bonuses, but whereas it is not easy for a UK-based bank to relocate en mass to Switzerland or further afield (in fact it is impossible with capacity in both Zurich and Geneva a long way off being able to accommodate the European operations of most large financial organisations), it is relatively easy for a straight A student to go to Harvard or Stanford instead of Oxford or LSE.
The Conservative Party has always recognised that wealth creation is vital to both the future economic and social prosperity of the UK and to encourage this we recognise that when someone works hard and succeeds they should be able to keep a significant proportion of their earnings. A 50% higher rate of tax rate sits very uneasy with most of us in the party but we accept it as a necessary price to pay because it sends the message that ‘we are all in it together’, rich and poor alike. Taxing future high-earning graduates more than their less-well off counterparts cannot be justified on the same basis. Indeed, one hopes that by the time they start to earn the deficit will be considerably smaller.
It is easy to forget that those who materially benefit from a higher education already pay a considerably higher absolute sum of money to the state via a higher marginal rate of taxation. Making those graduates who earn more pay more for their tuition not only marginalises this contribution but provides a clear incentive for them to study overseas. It is important that we do not let the socialist element of our coalition partner push us into compromising fundamental Conservative principles and ultimately the future prosperity of our nation.