September 11, 2016
The Guardian Book Review
Politics by Nick Clegg – A painful read
by David Runchiman
How long does it take to decompress from the extraordinary pressures of holding high political office, especially when it ends really badly? Bereavement takes at least two years. Nick Clegg suffered a kind ofpolitical death last May, with the added misery of having it played out in the full glare of the cameras. Yet here he is, barely 16 months on, with a book reflecting on his experiences, most of it written presumably in the still raw aftermath of his humiliation. Of the five stages of grief, Clegg seems to have got beyond denial, but he is a long way from acceptance. This is the work of someone stuck between anger and bargaining. The result is a pretty painful read.
In his introduction he promises us something different: a step back to reflect on what’s gone wrong with politics and how to rescue rational, liberal discourse in an age of populist anger run amok. But as such a visible victim of that anger, he keeps scratching away at his personal wounds. Take tuition fees: he fronts up about what a disaster it was to renege on the Lib Dem promise not to raise them, and in particular to be bullied by the NUS into having every Lib Dem MP (Clegg included) sign a pledge promising to vote against future rises. He also admits to being too easily swayed by the demands of leading universities to solve their funding problems. Vice-chancellors were going “nuts”. “If only I had dug in my heels and let them go nuts,” Clegg writes with the benefit of hindsight. So why didn’t he? Partly, he says, because he had too much else on his plate. But it still sounds weak. Getting outmanoeuvred by bolshy students and antsy academics was not a good omen for dealing with far tougher opponents, including those he faced inside the coalition government.
Clegg insists that the Lib Dems were caught between a rock and a hard place on tuition fees and the final policy was the fairest compromise they could muster, with safeguards built in to protect less advantaged students. He says the anger the issue aroused was “totemic”. And though he tries hard to take his medicine, he can’t resist a few whines of self-pity. The two main parties are hardly “paragons of consistency”, so why is this the U-turn everyone remembers? He blames himself for not having at least tried to delay the decision so that it didn’t overshadow everything that followed. But he also blames the British political system for making everything so tribal, with the decent people in the middle getting squeezed.
As a result, he ends up sounding like just another politician. It wasn’t the policy that was wrong, it was the way we communicated it: that’s the fallback of every failing government. His complaints about the unfairness of the system also betray a more basic problem. Throughout, Clegg expresses his surprise and regret that voters were not prepared to credit the Lib Dems for their willingness to compromise for the sake of good government. He says they had no choice but to join the coalition after the 2010 election: anything else would have revealed the party to be fundamentally unserious about power. It would also have let the country down at a perilous economic moment, with the public finances in desperate need of stability. Yet the Lib Dems got no reward for this seriousness of purpose, nor for all the hard work they put in over the next five years to moderate Tory extremism and deliver sensible policies in testing circumstances. Clegg can’t really have been surprised. As he also admits, this has been the fate of junior coalition partners almost everywhere: they get punished for their compromises by voters who see it as evidence of weakness. What’s so special about the Lib Dems that they should have been viewed differently?
Clegg’s bemusement that the British electorate could not see how much good his party had done is either disingenuous or startlingly arrogant. And for all its self-flagellating moments, there is a streak of arrogance running through this book. Clegg keeps telling us that he took decisions on their merits, having done his homework, unlike his Tory partners in government who were more often looking for party political advantage. But why should we think that the deputy PM – especially one as overworked, understaffed and strung out as Clegg tells us he was during his time in government – has some special insight into “the right thing to do”? He would have been better off focusing more on party political advantage for his own side. The absolute priority for the Lib Dems from the coalition agreement was constitutional reform, above all a change to the first-past-the-post voting system. But they got hammered in the 2011 AV referendum, after the Tories did everything in their power to undermine Clegg personally (even using the tuition fees fiasco against him), and Labour saw it as a chance to get in a few cheap shots. Clegg calls all this depressingly short-sighted by the other parties. But given where focusing on the long-term interests of the country has left him and his party, who looks short-sighted now?
The best way for minor parties to survive coalition government is to find some means of maintaining a sharply distinct identity. Clegg thought the Lib Dems should muck in where they were needed, which was fatal. He tells us of his many behind-the-scenes triumphs facing down Cameron and Osborne when they went too far. He wants us to know he’s a lot tougher than he looks. But he never attempted to humiliate them publicly, in the way they repeatedly humiliated him. Nor did he try to peel them off from each other or simply cause trouble for its own sake. It’s hard to think of any occasion when Clegg managed to embarrass the coalition deliberately rather than inadvertently. He was above that sort of thing. So he got crushed in the end.
A further sadness hanging over this book is the result of the EU referendum, which is referenced in a few last-minute tweaks to the text. The causes Clegg has stood for all his life – Europeanism, cosmopolitanism, liberal compromise – are in disarray. At the end of Politics he tries to take stock of what’s brought us to this point – economic stresses, cultural shifts, technological changes – and though he has no real solutions, he refuses to give up on liberal optimism. He hopes we will sooner rather than later rediscover how “to behave in a less tribal way, be civil to one another, be supportive of each other’s efforts to hold the government to account”.
But he knows this is easier said than done – especially since he is not immune to some tribalism of his own. In describing his political formation during the Blair years, it’s clear that a dislike of the Labour party – or the “Labour machine” as he calls it – runs in Clegg’s DNA. He would have found it incredibly hard to enter government with Labour; the Tories were always his preference. To call Clegg himself a secret Tory is unfair. He was his own man, liberal in his instincts, serious-minded, earnest, level-headed. He is totally plausible when he says that he never got caught up with “Cleggmania” following his performance in the first leaders’ debate during the 2010 general election campaign. His “Dutch blood” has made him “immune to great rushes to the head”. Still, given the ultimate failure of his time in government, he might have been better trying to access a bit more of his inner Tory bastard.