NICK CLEGG “Politics is a messy business, your ideals clash with reality”
Nick, we’re paying for the consequences of that clash. Literally.
Nick Clegg is, unsurprisingly, a controversial figure among students.
The former Deputy Prime Minister essentially committed career suicide when he broke his promise over tuition fees back in 2010. Even after his heartfelt apology, there was still much resentment among the student community.
In light of this backdrop, the crowds of students that filled the Union chamber were actually very well behaved. When the topic of tuition fees was brought people were polite in their expression of disillusionment. Clegg took criticism completely in his stride and was even quite funny at points. I suppose he’s probably very used to it.
It’s no secret that Clegg is a big fan of the EU. In January, he even wrote an article for the Independent entitled “My Birthday wish is that we win the debate for staying in the EU.” He admitted he had to restrain himself from “showering the chamber with pro-EU propaganda”. But instead of bombarding us with facts and figures, he took a step back from the nitty-gritty details of the debate and took a more holistic view.
Clegg launched into an in-depth history of our relationship with the EU. He suggested that our uneasy attitude towards the institution stems from our national reluctance to join in the first place. “We’re trying to resolve our national image from a place of regret,” Clegg says. “We accepted membership with a defeatist shrug of the shoulders, while for other countries the creation of EU was above and beyond everything else, it was about peace over war.”
Apparently, we’re all just a bit too emotional about the EU. “Why is our attitude to sharing sovereignty with other countries different? Our opposition to the EU is too tied up with our emotions.” Nick is clearly anxious about the “unpredictable” knock-on effects of leaving the union. He suggested that all the arguments used by ‘In’ campaigners in the lead up to the Scottish independence referendum, also apply to the EU. “We’re stronger together, we’re stronger if we work together.”
With just over a month to go until the EU referendum, things are heating up on both sides of the debate and arguments getting increasingly snide and offensive. Only last week, the next potential leader of the Conservative party, Boris Johnson, made some bizarre and misguided remarks about Obama. He suggested the President’s attitude to Britain and its relationship with the EU might be based on his “part-Kenyan” heritage and “ancestral dislike of the British Empire.”
What did Clegg make of Boris’s racist remark? “I just thought they were crass, stupid and offensive. The problem for Boris, and indeed Farage, is they’ve given up winning the debate so now they’re just having a shouting match. It’s descending into this situation where they won’t actually engage with anything critics say. It’s descending into this school ground dispute and so you know they’ve a) lost the argument and b) they’re going to get more aggressive in bullying people.”
The Lib Dems suffered a complete annihilation back in last year’s election. They lost 47 seats leaving them with a mere 8 MPs. A serious fall from grace. Clegg tried to justify the failure, explaining that small parties in coalitions often suffer huge defeats in the next election. “I’m not trying to escape the noose of blame, but there’s a pattern of coalition partners getting absolutely hammered after a term in office, especially in the current political climate where compromise is called betrayal.”
With the Tories in the driver’s seat for the foreseeable future and the “long-term economic plan” well underway, it could be a while before we return to left-leaning government. But Nick thinks the fightback may happen more quickly than people think. “While the election last year provided a very conventional outcome, an outright majority, it disguised a very unconventional political landscape. The political landscape is now more fractured than it has ever been in my life time. We have a government that has an outright majority in parliament, but got what, 24% of the eligible vote? And you’ve got Scotland turned pretty much into a one party state and Liberal Democrats and Labour licking their wounds. That’s not a stable state of affairs. “
“We have a curiously unrepresentative government in Westminster.” Clegg thinks there must inevitably be a return to the centre-left, perhaps when the Labour Party stop “having a conversation with themselves,” as he put it. “I can’t put a date in the diary but I’m pretty confident that the current state of affairs is an artificial one and almost an accidental one.” Maybe there is hope that we won’t be stuck with a smarmy, shiny faced Cameron-Osborne duo forever.
As more and more people asked about Liberal Democrats’ failings in government (albeit respectfully), it became more and more awkward. While he dealt well with the critique, at one point, exasperated, Nick asked, “is anyone going to ask about the successes of the Lib Dems?!” Finally, he was asked what achievement he was most proud of during his turbulent period of (partial) governance. “I’m most proud of what we did in getting early education for the most disadvantaged families in Britain. The role of early intervention, one of the most powerful tools for social change, I regret that we couldn’t do more.”
Education is clearly an issue that is important to Nick. He launched the Commission on Inequality in Education back in January, which is looking at ways to close the attainment gap between poorer and better-off children. I asked whether the commission had considered the role of private schools and how they contribute to and perpetuate educational inequality. He didn’t seem to like this question and pulled the well practised political move of avoiding it for a while.
But he went onto say, “The priority is to create a socially mobile society rather than have a spat about private education, considering the vast majority of people go to publicly funded state schools, it seems to raise their standards is by far the more productive.” He suggested that the huge gap in educational attainment between rich and poor children is not a gap created by private schools. But surely he recognises that private schools worsen this disparity?
I asked him whether, in an ideal world, he would abolish private schools, “I went to a private school, I think private schools are as much an expression of a sort of segregated society rather than the genesis of it. My guess if you wished them all away over night you’d still have very stark contrast between wealthier and poorer sections of our society.”
So what’s next for the Liberal Democrats? “We should never go near power again.” Clegg is joking, but to be honest, it is extremely unlikely he will get anywhere near Downing Street, anytime soon. “I’m not the first or the last politician to get to parliament and not be able to do what I want.” He emphasised the fact that although the Liberal Democrats haven’t always got it right, at least they’ve actually done something.
He finished with some wise words: “Politics is messy, don’t go into politics if you want to sit on your hands. Sit on your hands if you want to sit on your hands.”
For someone that has put me in probable life-long debt, Nick Clegg isn’t all that bad.