Thursday 14 May 2015

Nick Clegg: our part in his downfall

I first met Nick Clegg after I wrote a pamphlet for Liberator in 2000 about how we might re-imagine a political party which could, once again, have a mass membership.  He was interested in ideas.  I liked him enormously.

I have only spoken to him twice since he became deputy prime minister.  You can't really be friends with senior politicians.  You have to devote yourself completely to their cause and be useful to them.  I don't blame him for this: it's the nature of the job and, also, I did rather let him down a couple of times.

But I have a memory before that of how he thought.  Wrestling with new ways forward.  Sceptical in a positive way that is actually very unusual for working politicians. He was a gut Liberal and I'm sure he still is.

I believed at the time, and still believe, that he was the right choice as leader. We needed a thinker, which is what I wrote during his leadership campaign in my first ever blog post here in 2007.

We still do need a thinker (which is why I will be supporting Norman Lamb).  It wasn't that Clegg failed to fulfil this role.  It was, as DPM, that he was locked in a Whitehall office with an agenda that required a minute by minute response.  It wasn't exactly conducive to thinking, so the thinking still urgently needs doing - and at least as much as the campaigning.

The trouble with departing swiftly after a major setback is that you tend to get the blame for it, and we have already seen those - from David Steel downwards - who have seen this as the moment to blame Clegg.

Not only do I think that is wrong, it is also rather shortsighted.  Because I believe, in his political skill, his eloquence, his humour and his unique ability to sound human, Nick Clegg was the most effective leader the Liberal force has had in this country since the Second World War.  I don't want to lose those elements of the party's personality that he pioneered.

I have seen tributes to his integrity, and they are absolutely correct - who else would have taken care to choose his words so carefully that he did not betray a confidence from a political opponent on the Today programme, when the temptation to do so must have been overwhelming?

But if we think back over the TV debates, his performance in 2015 was extraordinary - passionate, articulate but also human.  That is such a difficult trick to pull off for a politician, and it is cruel and unjust that he did not reap the benefit of it.

His great skill has been to see how policy objectives might be achieved, despite the mess of the government system, and despite the opposition from his coalition partners.  The idea of localism by individual City Deals, which he masterminded, has made a huge difference.

I'm not, of course, endorsing every campaign decision in 2015, or every decision the coalition made.  It is so easy in hindsight to say what should have happened.

Of course the tuition fees business, which has ended up giving us a more successful and fairer policy, could have been managed better - and perhaps would have been after a few more months experience.  But before history hangs that like an albatross around Nick Clegg's neck, let's just remember that he warned the party not to adopt the abolition position.

They took no notice.  And here I had a personal part to play as a member of the Lib Dems' federal policy committee, and I should confess it.  Along with a majority of other members of the committee, I voted to carry on the policy to abolish tuition fees - even though the leader had warned us of the consequences.

The consequences happened.

Actually, it is worse than that. When it came to the moment, before the 2010 election, I couldn’t decide how I ought to vote on tuition fees, and I’m not absolutely sure I did vote to maintain our policy against tuition fees or not. Such an important decision, as it turned out, and I can’t remember what I did.

There we are.  That's my confession.  The truth is that the defeat the party just suffered was a defeat for the party as a whole, not just for the leader or the strategy.

It was also the culmination of an intellectual and electoral decline which had been going on for a decade. Clegg took the party, turbo-charged it suddenly, took a place in government for the first time since 1916, managed it magnificently.  But the basic trends have been downwards since the turn of the century.

But why are the critics shortsighted?  Well, here's my prediction, and it is inspired by the latest blog on the New Statesman's website.  The period when Clegg was deputy prime minister will soon be regarded as a brief shining moment of civilisation, successfully steering the economy to some kind of security, and pioneering major economic and educational shifts that will stay with us.

That understanding will happen much sooner than most of us expect.

It isn't a proper reward for the former party leader, but it is at least fully deserved.  I feel very proud to have been a member of the party when he led it.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. At last someone who tells it like it is. All the vitriol against Nick, even within the party, when, as I kept saying, if the party had listened to him on tuition fees things would have been very different.

The moment the party voted to keep the abolish tuition fees policy, Clegg's fate was set. He did try to do something about the policy - there is no denying that - but members ignored him and MUST bear some responsibility for that.

There was a huge increase in the number of students going to uni - from around 12% to 45%. Abolishing tuition fees had become an unaffordable policy.

In government we had no friends in the media. They tore Nick to shreds over this. Totally unfair.

I hope people will give him credit for what he did in government, even those who turned against him within the party.

So frustrating that it really didn't have to turn out like this.

Mark Argent said...

I am with you on this. I am deeply impressed by Nick as a statesman and for how he has withstood a torrent of brickbats.

The tragedy is how often people spoke negatively of Nick on the doorstep, but their antipathy evaporated in a few sentences and they ended up promising to vote LibDem.

That leaves me thinking we could have done more to ease this one -- which might be very close to what we needed to do to explain coalition to people.

Joe Otten said...

David Steel mentioned that he had a leader's veto on manifesto policy. If FPC cannot cut its coat according to its cloth, then maybe this needs bringing back.

Louisa Latham said...

Equally Nick would not have been in charge of campaign strategy per se.

As a member in the South East it blew my mind that we were trying to add to our seat tally in Maidstone after the Rochester and Strood by-election. Yet we did try to do so, taking valuable resources away from Lewes and Eastbourne and losing those seats.

I personally feel there has been a huge disconnect and even contempt for ordinary campaigners (who had a realistic idea of what the result might be) and HQ, some (but not all) of whom have been sitting in an ivory tower since Chris Fox took over.

Paul Tyler said...

Thanks, David, a typically balanced, thoughtful and positive assessment ..... without the sour recriminations we have had from a tiny faction or the calls to civil war now apparent in the Labour and UKIP ranks !

Anonymous said...

First I am not Anonymous, I am Bill le Breton but I can't find another way of commenting.

Second, I shall probably upset both Paul Tyler who I had the good fortune of being able to support in the Feb 74 general election, and David. Here goes ...

I think we can all agree that the Tories' use of the SNP scare was a huge risk to the Union and owes much to the tactics of Randolf Churchill.

But actually, the economic scare tactics of May 2010 jeopardised the recovery of the British economy which at that time was recovering at its trend rate of 5% growth in nominal gross domestic product. (See Prof Simon Wren-Lewis for more details.)

That scare and its attendant reversal of the ongoing recovery (until the policy began to be reversed two or so years later) cost the British economy circa £300 billion in lost output and therefore in lost life chances.

It will be regarded as the greatest folly since the other Churchill, Winston, took us back onto the Gold Standard and at the wrong level.

Of course this scare tactic was in political campaigning terms 'brilliant'. It pinned the blame for economic 'incompetence' squarely on Labour and this narrative, added to the SNP scare, produced a Tory majority administration at the start of the 2015/20 Parliament.

History will judge us very harshly for our part in that economic policy. It will overshadow all else.

£300 billion was a huge price to pay for a Tory victory. And we are yet to understand the full price of the SNP scare.

Blissex said...

Our blogger's comments about Clegg, and the obsession on fees seem to be mostly waffly, except that Clegg seems indeed a pretty good politician with an excellent image.

From the LibDem point of view his biggest and indeed huge legacy is that thanks to his inspiration and image he gained a big electoral victory for the LibDems. If the LibDems have recently lost so many seats it is also because they had gained so many votes in the 2010 election.

I think that he got the 2010 election right by campaigning on a New Labour profile for the LibDem, essentially as a conservative social democrat, as "Tony Blair The Younger", attracting conservative-ish "yellow tory" voters who would rather not vote for full "grind the face of the poor in the dust" toryism, and progressive-ish "yellow socialdemocrat" voters who would rather not vote for full "we are really bland whatever" labourism.

Unfortunately that profile was obviously thoroughly incompatible with supporting a "nasty" Tory government that has consistently tried to undermine the LibDem, and "yellow tory" voters went back to voting "nasty" Tory directly and "yellow socialdemocrat" voters went back to vote "bland whatever" Labour directly.

Still Clegg deserves a lot of credit for a huge election win in 2010, as well as a large share of the blame for accepting to have the LibDem rebranded as the Tory wannabes or stooges, in particular destroying the "Dem" side of the party, as Tim Carron has all but acknowledged.

David Evans said...

Does integrity include ignoring two democratic votes in Conference (and Lib Dem principles) on Secret Courts?

Alex Macfie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex Macfie said...

"Huge election win"? The party made a net loss of seats in 2010! And, what's worse, we lost seats to Labour (Chesterfield, Rochdale), and failed to take several seats that should have been easy pickings from them (e.g. Islington S & Finsbury, Oxford East), in an election where we were fighting a tired, discredited, unpopular Labour government. So no, I 2010 does NOT represent an election win for the Lib Dems; in Clegg's first contest the party coasted when we should made net gains. So you will forgive me for not giving Clegg any credit for the 2010 election result. With hindsight, it is clear that our mediocre performance then was a portent for the disaster of this year's election. However, the seeds were sown long before then.