The British, especially those at the top of the heap, have traditionally been hostile to the notion of a benign state, funded by taxation and responsible for providing for the basic needs of us all - except during the period after the Second World War. That lacerating experience transformed the national consciousness. It was thought since all had suffered equally, all deserved to benefit equally from post-war prosperity. New homes were to be built by local councils for the "heroes" who had defended their country, new schools for their children, new hospitals for when they were ill. It was Margaret Thatcher who turned this short-lived consensus on its head, made "public" a dirty word, and condemned the welfare state as an institution which encouraged laziness and complacency, and destroyed initiative. Sturdy individualism, she asserted, was the key to the British character.
The national argument she initiated in 1979 is still raging. Should education be a public good, available free for all, or is it a private commodity for which families and individuals should compete ferociously? It's a question which can be asked of any level of education, but currently the spotlight is on universities. The Labour party manifesto means that top-up fees cannot be implemented before the next parliament, but we are already seeing signs of a back-bench rebellion. Clare Short has spoken out against the idea - the first cabinet minister to do so.
The top-up fees policy is backed by Tony Blair and his education adviser Andrew Adonis - and was an important underlying reason for Estelle Morris's resignation. She knew she would not be able to stand out against it, vulnerable as she was to clever young men who sneered at her academic credentials.
But the argument is not over yet. Cambridge University has broken ranks with other elite universities to say that talent among working-class students will be lost if top-up fees are introduced. The Girls' Schools Association, too, fear for their bright students from poor backgrounds. Margaret Hodge, spouting Number 10's line, may argue that the dustman should not subsidise the doctor - but a well-constructed system of income tax would make the rich pay disproportionately more.
The pros and cons are being thoroughly aired, but one suspects that Tony Blair is waiting to see which way the media - mostly run by highly-paid men who do not want to fork out university fees for their children, but who are are equally opposed to rises in income tax - will eventually jump.
Now that we know that more than half the children in inner London are born into poverty - a shocking and disgraceful figure - let's focus more clearly on the role of the state in enabling people to live decent lives. Notoriously, the Conservative party criticised the "nanny" state. But the best nannies care for their charges and want the best for them. If young people grow up believing that their country does not care about them, why should they care for it?