In several weeks time, Nick Clegg may no longer be the leader of the Liberal Democrats. I hope he is, because if he remains so that will probably bode well for the Lib Dems. But there are so many different scenarios in which Nick could step down, I have to concede its looming reality.
Like the title of my article states, I think that a decade from now, the out and out hatred of Nick Clegg we’ve seen constantly over this parliament will be one of those things used by comedians and sitcom writers to evoke the weirdness of the age we currently live in, like they use pregnant women smoking in Mad Men as a shortcut to demonstrate the peculiarities of the early 1960’s. People a decade hence will have such a hard time remembering why such feeling was so rife. This is because the anger directed at Nick is so much a symptom of other factors. You can see this when Clegg does things like The Last Leg, where the public goes, “This Clegg guy is all right.” Yet still the negative feelings towards Nick fail to subside.
I can hear at the same time people saying, “People can’t forgive Clegg for breaking the tuition fees pledge and that where the anger comes from”, but that’s crap. For some middle class students that might be the case, but that would in no way account for the strength of feeling demonstrated against Clegg over the last five years. I feel sure that even if there had never been a pledge about tuition fees given by Nick, the rage towards him for going into coalition with the Tories would still be exactly what it is today, and has been over this parliament.
The reason Clegg has been such a target of angst, from both the Left and the Right, is that he has essentially, unconsciously, stopped both from forcing themselves to confront their own massive problems. Rather, the Coalition Government has, but Nick is simply the personification of this and thus an easy target for the feelings I’m about to elaborate on.
The Left has spent the last five years burying its head inside its collective behind. I don’t say this as someone who wants a stick to beat the Left with; I wish the last five years had been different in this regard, I sincerely do. After Labour had left office and gone back into opposition, it was beholden on the party to create a bold new vision for what social democracy might look like going forward. One that accepted that radical things were probably necessary to keep public services at the level they were in 2010, never mind improving them in future. An agenda that said that the alternative to Tory cuts wasn’t Keynesian stimulus, but rather a radical rethink about to create a society in which the gap between rich and poor got thinner, and standards of living could somehow continue to increase for everyone.
They did not need to re-invent the wheel to accomplish this. They could have looked at what Scandinavian countries have done in some senses; what Germany and Switzerland have managed to achieve in regards to things like apprenticeships, which if taken on board here might mean that jobs which are now low paid in Britain could become reasonably handsomely rewarded within a generation or less.
This didn’t happen for several reasons. One, it was assumed that the Coalition was going to break apart sooner rather than later, so why do anything radical when you’re just going to inherit government when the other two main parties go down in flames anyhow? Two, it would have involved annoying a lot of people and tearing down some sacred Left shibboleths. Trying to find efficiency savings in the NHS and other public bodies would have been met with extreme union resistance. CLPs would have blanched at changes to local government structure that would have shaken things up for them. This is where the Clegg hatred came in handy.
“Jesus, turns out sorting out the country is really hard work.”
“I know. Let’s forget about it for now and burn some more Clegg effigies instead.”
For the Right, Clegg stood precisely on the main faultline of the Conservative party and indeed, centre-right thinking. Did the party want to become essentially a classical liberal party – small state, socially liberal, forward looking, internationalist, less enamoured of institutions – or did it want to be what UKIP have slowly morphed into – backwards looking, relaxed about the size of the state so long as it props up “conservative values”, anti-immigration, anti-Europe? The election of Cameron as leader had made some of the people in the former camp think they’d won the argument. Then came 2010, a confusing election result, and government with the Lib Dems.
Both sides of the Right dislike Clegg because it feels to them like he’s the one in the way of having this final fight to the death about what it is a whole side of British politics, and indeed its oldest political party, is supposed to be about. He isn’t, but because of the way the Coalition is structured, I can see how it feels like that. So Nick bears the brunt of this anger from the Right.
This is why in ten years, bashing Clegg will seem so strange as to be instantly humorous. Like I say, it’s easy to imagine Nick walking away from frontline politics in a few weeks time – and the Left and the Right will still have the crushing problems I’ve outlined above. Only now they won’t have Nick to kick around anymore. I don’t know what they’ll do with themselves then.