Peter Worthington has had an amazing life. And his obituary, which he wrote himself, certainly has an arresting opening line.
Gas bombs and public hangings are not two things you would associate with the deputy prime minister in this day and age, but both are in a days' work for Nick Clegg. The Hugo Young Lecture, unwittingly attended by the Centre for Journalism's own Clare Rose Freeman and Nick Duffy, was the victim in the latest in the spate of student protests, which follow Clegg like the plague.
Fresh out of King's Cross station just after rush hour, it was not immediately clear that there was all that much wrong. Apart from the overwhelming level of busy commuters and the ever-present stench of London's busier stations (both of which are enough to take aback those of us who aren't London-savvy), everything seemed to be fairly normal. Rounding the corner to York Way, however, a different scene unfolded - Above the hubbub of central London, a rhythmic chanting could be heard. Newsvans were illegally parked on pavements. In the distance, lights were flashing. As we got closer, a large crowd could be distinguished, congregated exactly where we needed to go. Closer still, and a huge waft of gas erupted from the cloud, momentarily shrouding the scene from view. Terrorist attack? Thankfully not, a 'harmless' smoke bomb. As the smoke cleared in a ever-so-cliche fashion, the crowd could be made out.
Student protesters - a couple hundred of them. Instead of the now infamous scenes of Millbank tower, this protest seemed both orderly and - other than the smoke bomb - under control. Though the police numbered under thirty and were not equipped with crowd control gear, they had erected portable fences to keep the crowd in check. The protesters themselves also seemed younger than those at Millbank, and their chants illustrated this. The "No ifs, no buts; no education cuts" of weeks gone by was alternated with "Take away our EMA? We say no way!", the latter of which suggested this crowd was a different crowd. Millbank had been during school time, but this was the first sign of the generation which will be hit hardest - and not those already students - rising up in anger. There were no 'F**k fees' among the placards and banners either, replaced with 'Shame on you for turning blue' and 'Don't you Con-Dem us'; this was a PG-13 protest. There was a disturbing twist, however, near the building entrance, where specifically constructed gallows dangled an effigy of Clegg.
My first feelings were of pure shock - well, actually my first feelings were of bemusement at the thought of someone specifically building gallows (perhaps in a Woodwork class?) and dressing up an effigy in a suit, followed by amusement that someone had clearly bought the wrong wig and made a thoroughly bad job of his hair, but at some point after this was the pure shock. For such a well-behaved and young protest, the owner of the gallows was throwing the metaphorical fire extinguisher off the metaphorical roof, invalidating the actions of the others protesting alongside.
After a few minutes, we managed to work our way past the security inside, into the inner sanctum of the gallery. This, yet again, was like a different world entirely. Descending down an escalator to a marble-floored wine reception, it quickly became clear we were not appropriately attired. The few assembled guests were almost without exception in black-and-white suits, and then came us, in jeans, trainers and bulky coats. Needless to say, we had not been warned by the group that invited us, Unlock Democracy, that this was an occasion to dress for. Waiters were on hand with hors d'oeuvres and wine aplenty, a world away from the protests outside. Whilst it might have been easy to slip into a student mindset and feel more akin to the protesters outside than the suits inside, I felt a little more comfortable with the 'warm room and mushroom crostini' life over the 'bitter chill and lost cause' life.
Time trickled by - Clegg managed to sneak in past the protesters at some point, and things eventually got underway, a few minutes behind schedule but punctual enough. An opening adress by Liz Forgan reminded us all why we were there - to continue to celebrate the legacy of Hugo Young, the late, great Guardian columnist of old, which put the scene outside into context. Much of Young's family had had to walk past the gallows, and the annual memorial cast a little shame on those outside.
Nick Clegg was welcomed on after, and he, of course, laughed off the protesters outside; "the Liberal Democrats join in a coalition with the Conservatives, and the students are advocating capital punishment!". He also urged the protesters to not dismiss higher education policies out of hand, suggesting that some of the policies were not as bad as suggested by NUS figures, likening student fees plans to that of the preferred graduate tax, and claiming that EMA will be replaced with a 'more targeted' payment system. He asked protesters again to actually read the details of policies before criticising them - "listen and look before you march and shout".
Much of his speech, however, was given over to social mobility, fairness, and fundamental progressiveness. As is to be expected of the coalition member, he shied away from criticizing Tory policy on many issues, opting instead to talk in terms of 'old progressiveness' and 'new progressiveness', attacking Labour and risking alienating grassroots liberals, instead of daring to round on Conservative policies this far from the next election. A lot was conveniently left out of the speech, and often it was reading between the lines that gave the truest answer - on accountability in other sectors, he lauded the system of parliamentary accountability - his solution for dissatisfied voters whose MPs have betrayed promises? "They can chuck them out at the next election!". It's a far cry from the 'right to recall' bandied about back in the Prime Ministerial debates, and whilst his change of heart on the issue is hardly surprising (an NUS campaign plans to make him the first victim of any such policy might have a hand in it), for an event co-hosted by Unlock Democracy, it was depressing to see Clegg lauding the political system he spent so long criticising.
On social mobility, Clegg was truly in his own territory, and though I shall leave it to more serious articles to discuss this in depth, there are more than a few good soundbytes which emerged - he dealt a blow to Labour's tax policies, criticising a system which merely lifts people above the line of poverty as opposed to creating a longer term solution, and shying away from class war terminology whilst maintaining the impact - "poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness", and "inequalities become injustices when they are fixed". He echoed David Cameron's Big Society drive, attacking the NHS as 'monolithic' and unaccountable, urging local control and local accountability, whilst suggesting impending expansion of academy schemes will leave schools more free to run, and 'not by Dictat from Whitehall'. Only Clegg's robust defence of the Euro seemed truly out of place, and is certainly not something which will win Liberal votes at the next election, given ever-increasing Euro-scepticism across the country and Eurozone-wide economic crisis.
The protest, thankfully, had cleared up by the end of the lecture, and back into the still-thriving King's Cross we dove, into a resilient crowd which seemed the same as it had hours before; I had spent much of the evening considering the rather obvious contrasts between the protesters, outside the gallery with their placards and scarves, and the guests inside, with their designer suits and liberal quantities of wine. But here then, in King's Cross station, was the middle ground - people in suits and scarves, shielding from the cold and rushing about as if every train were just about to leave. Most of them had no idea there had been gallows and smoke bombs a few hundred metres down the road, nor did they likely care. I had felt separated from the protesters, not sharing their values on the other side of a police cordon, and also separate from the guests, in jeans and converses in a sea of black suits. Inside King's Cross though, the protesters can travel home alongside the lecture guests, and the angry ideological divides of police cordons thankfully aren't needed.