Posted Under: Afghanistan,Criminal Justice,Democracy,Economy,Education,Human Rights,Interviews,Labour,Liberal Democrats,The Welfare State,Tories
In an exclusive interview with The Third Estate, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg sets out his vision for change
It can’t be easy, being the leader of Britain’s third major political party. Caught between a disintegrating New Labour and a resurgent Conservative Party waiting for its coronation, convincing the British public that what you have to say can make a difference to their lives is an uphill struggle from the start. Nick Clegg, however, is a man of firsts. Elected to the European Parliament in 1999, he became the first ever Liberal Democrat parliamentarian in the East Midlands, and the first Liberal since 1931. Ten years later, MP for Sheffield Hallam and Lib Dem leader, Clegg has his eyes on Gordon Brown’s job. “Let me tell you why I want to be prime minister. It’s because I want to change our country for good,” he said at last month’s party conference as he attempted to position the Liberal Democrats to oust Labour as the dominant force in progressive politics for the first time in almost a century. On the back of the conference, as Parliament returns from recess and we prepare to enter a general election year, I quizzed Clegg on some of the big questions facing his party and whether or not his policies in the current economic climate can truly be considered progressive.
Grabbing headlines when you’re a bronze medallist often means you have to shout louder than the rest. And it was Nick Clegg’s call for “savage cuts” last month which became the buzzword for the conference season. I ask him how it is possible to reconcile these kinds of cuts in public spending with the assertion that the Lib Dems are poised to replace Labour as the true progressive force in British politics. Surely retrenchment has always been the antithesis of social justice? “Politics is about priorities,” he says. “Simply spending money doesn’t make you progressive; it’s about what you spend it on. This government has radically enlarged the amount of money spent by the state, but the gap between rich and poor has grown. There’s nothing very progressive about a country in which a child born in the poorest area of Sheffield will die a full fourteen years earlier than one born down the road in the wealthiest part. So it is right to look at the money government spends and work out if we can use more of it to help those who need more support.”
One area in which the Lib Dems certainly have picked up the ball dropped a long time ago by Labour is in their opposition to nuclear weapons. In his youth, Tony Blair was an active member of CND. In his middle age, he presided over the multi-billion pound decision to renew Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. “What’s progressive about renewing Trident – spending billions on a system that doesn’t protect the country from the modern threats we face?” Clegg argues. “We could put that money into helping people on the lowest incomes.”
But are the Liberal Democrats really willing to commit the money necessary to help people on the lowest incomes? One of the party’s most popular policies amongst students of all backgrounds has been its opposition to tuition fees. “I believe tuition fees are wrong, I believe they need to be abolished,” Nick Clegg told the party conference, shortly before saying that they had to be realistic about whether doing so would be affordable given the country’s current debt and fuelling speculation that the Lib Dems were planning to axe one of their core progressive policies. Given that improved access to education is vital for long-term economic growth, I ask Clegg, should we really be backing away from doing the right thing just because it’s easier now?
“None of these choices are easy, at any time,” he says. “But we’ve got to be straight with people about what can be afforded right now. I’ve set out a radical programme that would make our society fairer, and give every child – no matter their background – the best chances in life. We know that at the moment a poor, bright child will be overtaken by a better off, less intelligent child by the time they’re seven years old. So we have to get in there right at the beginning, with smaller class sizes for 5-7 year olds, and extra support for children from the poorest backgrounds. We would give schools more money for taking on children from poorer families and that big injection of cash would make sure everyone had the best start in life. Then more children from disadvantaged backgrounds would have the opportunity to go to university later on. And yes, I want to get rid of the tuition fees system too – it’s just a question of when.”
Meritocracy is not exactly Marxism, but it is an ideal to which most left-of-centre MPs believe we should aspire. Are the Lib Dems doing enough, however, to distinguish themselves from the other main parties? “I think we have distinguished ourselves very substantially by setting out the radical, progressive programme for change that I’ve been talking about,” Clegg says. I ask him why, then, the party is failing to capitalise on the deep dissatisfaction with the government. Labour suffered its worst defeat in almost a century at the recent European elections. But despite the wars, privatisations and crises, and despite the Lib Dems emerging from the expenses scandal as the cleanest party, why was it that they saw their share of the vote fall by 1.2 percent?
“Of course it would have been great to win more votes in the European Elections,” Clegg says. “But just look at the local elections which took place on the same day. We pushed Labour into a devastating third place, and we now control more big cities outside London than either of the other parties: Bristol, Sheffield, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Cambridge – they’re all Liberal Democrat cities, and I could name more. And in places like Bedford, where voters chose a new mayor just the other day, people are realising that Cameron isn’t offering real change at all. In an election where Labour came fifth, the Tories didn’t win – we beat them. In all these parts of the country we’re showing the way we treat power, dispersing it to the people, using it to cut crime, and regenerate areas that have wanted for attention for so long. People see the difference Liberal Democrats make in these places and they vote for us time and again.”
Smart, young, stylish, Oxbridge educated, leader of an opposition party, Clegg is keen to distinguish himself from Cameron as the voice of change in British politics. It was David Cameron who claimed that there was “barely a cigarette paper” between their two parties when he called for “one national movement that can bring real change” – broaching the idea of a Lib-Con coalition should his party fail to win a majority next year. Clegg was having none of it, however, describing the Conservative leader as a “con man” and attacking his hypocrisy on civil liberties. But how would a Liberal Democrat government under Nick Clegg reverse the alarming erosion of civil liberties and human rights that has taken place under New Labour?
“We’ve published a Freedom Bill, which shows how we’d repeal thirty years of Labour and Conservative authoritarian legislation,” Clegg says. “That Bill would restore the right to silence, which the Tories took away; it would bring back jury trials, which Labour have tried so hard and so often to curtail, and it would stop government storing DNA from people who’ve not been convicted of any crime. On day one, we’d scrap identity cards – along with the Government’s massive National Identity Register. It’s an enormous, expensive incursion on our civil liberties; a total inversion of the relationship between citizen and state, where we have to account for ourselves to the government, not the other way round.” Clegg clearly doesn’t think that a cigarette paper is all that separates his policies from Cameron’s. “The Conservatives’ commitment to this kind of reform is just paper thin. I don’t think anyone should take them seriously on the rights of the citizen while they retain their commitment to abolish the Human Rights Act.”
But are Lib Dem commitments on human rights and civil liberties sufficient to see them running against the pack of British politics? I remember marching against the war in Afghanistan in November 2001. Back then, only a handful of MPs opposed the invasion, and only 12% of the country was against it. Eight years later, with Afghanistan in a worse state than ever and British casualties on the rise, opposition to the ongoing conflict is not such a lonely position when it comes to voters, even though a consensus remains amongst Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems on the need for a continued British presence in the country. The Lib Dems were widely praised for being the only major party to oppose the war in Iraq, but with the presence of foreign troops arguably exacerbating the instability of a country that has never in its history been successfully occupied, I ask Clegg if now is the time to take a principled stance against the war in Afghanistan too.
“We have taken and are taking a principled and practical approach to Afghanistan,” Clegg says. “The weekly pictures of soldiers being returned home to grieving families should give everyone pause for thought about the merit and the purpose of this conflict. But I want our troops to return when the time is right, with their heads held high, knowing they’ve made a real, long-term difference both to Afghanistan, and to Britain’s security.” Clegg’s approach, however, is not simply a military one. “The Government has a responsibility to our troops, now, to advance a political surge alongside the military surge; the Karzai Government clearly lacks the support of the Afghan people, and it is that among other things which is exacerbating instability. I’ve been calling on the Prime Minister for some time now to press for a Government of National Unity in Afghanistan, so that we can start to divert this conflict off the road of failure. Without that kind of reconciliation between the different interest groups in Afghanistan, we cannot hope to succeed.”
As a long-time opponent of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s a position I can’t subscribe to, but Clegg’s appraisal of the situation is refreshingly honest for a politician sitting on one of Parliament’s front benches. And it is on the question of honesty in politics that I turn to finally, raising, in the spirit of the organisation itself, a question suggested to me by Guy Aitchison of the Power2010 campaign. At the height of the expenses crisis, Nick Clegg responded to David Cameron and Gordon Brown’s attempts to position themselves as democratic reformers by pointing out that the Lib Dems alone had consistently called for reform of a “rotten” Westminster system. Power2010 has received nearly 2000 submissions from members of the public beyond Westminster who also want democratic reform. But what is Clegg doing to mobilise people’s anger with the way we are governed beyond engaging in the very routines of Westminster village politics that puts them off in the first place?
“Well, it would be odd if we didn’t use the platform that Westminster gives Liberal Democrat MPs to make it clear where we stand on political reform,” Clegg says. “We’ve always favoured a much more open, transparent and responsive system of government. And whether it’s freedom of information or the way in which MPs get elected, we’ve always led the way in calling for change. The others just lag behind, and – as we’ve seen after 12 years with Labour – they see constitutional change as a sort of refuge from other political crises, running to talk about it when they’re in trouble and drifting back into their establishment ways the second they think they’re out of the woods.”
As a party that has always been held back by the first-past-the-post electoral system, it is, perhaps, natural that the Lib Dems alone should remain consistent to their message on democratic reform. “For us, changing the way politics is done is a central part of what we’re here to do,” Clegg says. “But you’re right: speaking up in Westminster isn’t enough. That’s one of the reasons I meet people every week in town and village halls around the country. People can come along and ask me, to my face, anything and everything they like; believe me, they do too! One of the great things about Power2010 is that it’s asking for your ideas, from people well beyond the bubble at Westminster. I’m really looking forward to reading what people come up with after November 30th. Politicians don’t know it all, and we have to ask people directly if we’re to know what they want.”
Wisest is he who knows he does not know, goes the old Socratic belief. But philosophers are not kings. Nick Clegg is the third most likely person to be Prime Minister next year in a country that is still a two-party state. Until we see the kind of far-reaching democratic reform that he touches upon, that will not change. And change is what it’s all about. All politicians are either gamekeepers or gardeners and Nick Clegg clearly wants to be seen as the latter. Whether he has done enough to convince a public hungry for politicians to be the change they want to see in the world, only time and an election will tell.