By Ian Drummond
There is a party leader called Nick, a former MEP, called the “most loathed man in Britain” by the press, who has led his party first through “modernisation” to new heights, then to years of disaster and diminishing returns. In fact there’s two – Nick Clegg and Nick Griffin. And while the BNP have now sacked and expelled their former fuehrer, their wipeout at last year’s Euro elections being the final straw, the other Nick now faces his own reckoning, both the collapse of his party and the loss of his seat.
The Ashcroft poll now predicts, somewhat ironically, that both Clegg and his bête noir Nigel Farage are unlikely to be elected, and Parliament would be a better place without either of them. And in one of the most student heavy seats in the country, if Clegg does lose it will be clear what the issue behind his defeat was. The National Union of Students’ Liar Liar campaign targeting him and other LibDem oath breakers is both predictable and inspired. If it tips the balance in his and other seats then, alongside last month’s defeat of the Blairites and election of a fighting leadership in the NUS, it will represent a spring of great victories in the fight for free education.
Such a humiliation for Clegg could not be more richly deserved. His volte-face on fees stands as one of the most shameless examples of politics at its worst even in this age of mass alienation, itself a feeling to which his own conduct has contributed so much. His whole persona exemplifies the out of touch smugness that people have come to despise in our identikit political leadership, while his pitch of representing a position dead centre between the Tories and Labour is almost exceptionally inapt in a period where both major parties are still seen as two cheeks of the same backside, with similar policies and an almost interchangeable personnel Oxbridge educated former special advisors.
The truth is Blair was Thatcher-lite, Cameron was Blair-lite and Clegg is Cameron-lite. No wonder the Tories feel they could benefit from a change in style if not substance and look longingly to the fatuous Boris Johnson, a master debator in favour of bankers. But as for Labour, to the extent Milliband does try to break from the Thatcher-lite ratchet, Clegg promises to block him!
His new slogan is to give Labour a brain and the Tories a heart – who does he think he is, the Wizard of Oz? But his boast of how much influence he’ll wield in the next Parliament if given a second chance rings exceedingly hollow, especially compared to his pathetic excuses for his capitulation on fees. Of course all coalitions involve give and take, but it must be concluded that Clegg and his MPs never cared all that much about the one pledge they actually filmed themselves putting their signatures to.
Clegg says he was in a situation where he had to go into coalition with one of two adamantly pro-fees parties and therefore couldn’t carry out his pledge. But in fact there were no unmovably pro-fees parties in Parliament in 2010, only shaky recent converts to the whole idea. Even the Tories under Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard had opposed fees and David Cameron had brought the party round to supporting them as a fait acompli, in his own words reluctantly. Labour had brought them in, then raised them in 2004 (breaking an explicit manifesto promise) but only in the most controversial of circumstances, by 5 votes and thanks to Scottish MPs whose own constituents then as now enjoyed free education, thus raising the Scottish national question in British politics at a time when it was otherwise dormant on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall and would be for a long while to come. The vote was actually one day before the Hutton Enquiry was published and Blair had been widely expected to fall under the twin blows of a report that few expected to be quite the whitewash it was and defeat in the Commons, hence the last minute bottling of the Brownites to allow the unloved policy through. Thus much of Labour had always opposed fees and Labour in opposition along with some rebels from the government side would vote against the ConDem policy of tripling fees in 2010, meaning LibDem votes were decisive in getting it through.
I am not now nor have I ever been a liberal, I believe much of the LibDems’ spinelessness and mendacity is perfectly explicable from a socialist perspective, but it should be noted that this is not even in the best traditions of Clegg’s own party. Gladstone, the most towering figure of the old Liberal Party, once resigned from the Cabinet after voting for a law which he personally did believe in but contradicted a point of view he had previously held and expressed in a book, to show that he did not vote for personal gain. Clegg immediately and completely sold out the people who had been decisive in putting many of his MPs into Parliament in the first place all in fvour of getting his ministerial Mondeos, not only not negotiating around the softness of both parties on fees to abolish them but not even sticking to the letter of his agreement and not raising them. For a leader in love with compromise he seems to have been remarkably blind to that compromise, and to the half way position of abstaining rather than swinging the vote the government’s way, even getting his usually more respected party colleague Vince Cable to write the bill.
As well as the chance of power at which the LibDems were palpably salivating, the only other thing Clegg seemed keen to get out of the coalition was some form of electoral and constitutional reform. Here he even played hardball (putting the lie to the idea he couldn’t have done the same over fees), performing the Underwoodian manoeuvre of persuading Labour to topple Brown to make it look to the Tories like they weren’t his only option even while he had already made up his own mind to go with them. All to get out of them an agreement to hold a referendum on AV – an offer Labour had already made and which he wheeled out Shirley Williams to denounce as totally unacceptable. In fact the AV referendum was already in Labour’s manifesto and if Clegg had negotiated as seriously with them as he did with the Tories its most likely he could have got something more out of them – but then the former FT journalist and Thatcherite Orange Book Liberal was always more sympathetic to the right.
What’s amazing is that no-one in the Clegg camp predicted how the “great achievement” of the AV referendum would turn out. With a proposal so modest it could easily have been brought in without plebiscite, in fact an electoral reform that is in some ways less proportional, certainly less hospitable for small and new parties, than first past the post, a ruthless coalition partner willing to block with the opposition in a relentlessly negative campaign and supporters of real electoral reform divided over whether to vote Yes or No it became a vote of confidence in Nick Clegg’s toxic political personality and the votes split accordingly. The pro-AV campaign Clegg and his party ran didn’t help matters, relying more on celebrity endorsements from the likes of Helena Bonham Carter than any popular enthusiasm or street campaigning. Helena, by the way, was in the amateur dramatics society at university with Nick Clegg – she became an actress and he went into politics; well, they do say politics is acting for ugly people…
The rest of Clegg’s constitutional reform package has fared no better. The Tories voted down Lords reform while the LibDems voted down a redrawing of constituency boundaries that would have favoured the Tories, their original price for the AV referendum and one of the better reasons to have voted No to it. The only changed that actually passed was a minimal amendment to the Royal succession, to make the firstborn of the Sovereign the Heir to the Throne whatever their gender. Prince George was born soon after, so provided he lives as long as his great grandmother and assuming (as the law does) that we remain a stable monarchy that long, it will be the 22nd century and everyone who can read this article now will almost certainly be dead before Clegg’s reform has any practical consequence – and then only if George’s firstborn is a girl! Even more glaringly, the change didn’t even address the sectarian iniquity that the Monarch and Heir are banned from marrying a Catholic.
From there on in it’s been even further downhill for a man once, fleetingly, as popular as Winston Churchill. His decision to debate Nigel Farage may have been brave in the abstract, but the arguments he used in the debate, and the personal comparison he effectively invited everyone to draw between Farage and his very unpopular self, looked almost calculated to play into UKIP’s hands. To defend a tolerant, non-racist vision of Britain but predicate that on support for the Westminster and Brussels elites, especially the latter and at a time when it was breaking Greece on the wheel of austerity and stirring up civil war and a far right revival in Ukraine, is simply to help UKIP spread xenophobia among the masses of people alienated from those elites.
Now he ends his campaign effectively stumping for the Tories, in the knowledge that he can only survive by remaining in power with them. If he remains an MP and party leader then he looks set to do all he can keep this appalling coalition in place, possibly propped up by the DUP and his old sparring partner UKIP, a prospect that would both cause untold misery across the land and put the future united existence of our country in sharp jeopardy. For this nightmare to be averted, the electors of Sheffield Hallam, many of them students, have a heavy responsibility and a great opportunity.