Nick Clegg can string a sentence together. Over four and half years as Deputy Prime Minister and nearly seven as Lib Dem-in-chief, he’s proven that, at least. Watching him give what will almost definitely be his last leader’s speech to the Lib Dem conference yesterday – defiant in the face of intense unpopularity, unshakably convinced of the righteousness of his own actions, and, at times, still startlingly, worryingly persuasive – he looked and sounded more than a little bit like a late-stage Tony Blair. Just as in Mr Blair’s case, though, the lovely rhetoric can’t paper over what will be looked back on as a pretty wretched political legacy.
It’s fashionable to hate Clegg – and certainly understandable, given that he’s enabled arguably the most socially destructive government in modern British history – but he probably wasn’t all that bad a man, starting out. Watching him on Wednesday, you could still see a few flickers of the unsullied pre-Coalition Clegg – especially when he speaks about mental health, there’s no doubting that there’s genuine passion there. Unfortunately, they only served to highlight the selectiveness of that compassion – and, apparently, of his memory of the past five years.
On the podium in Glasgow, Clegg painted a primary colours caricature of Westminster politics. Labour are the party of the ‘overweening state’, Ed Miliband and co the economic vandals who caused the mess the Coalition was created to clean up. The Tories are heartless plutocrats, skewing politics in the interests of a wealthy elite (no disagreements there). In the middle, between the reckless Left and rabid Right, sit the Lib Dems, sensible, pragmatic but principled, balancing economic competence with compassion. This was the main thrust of his argument, as he tried to woo undecideds and win back the disillusioned by laying out what (the laughably unlikely prospect of) a purely Lib Dem government would do in power – the operative sound-bite: “The Liberal Democrats will borrow less than Labour, but we’ll cut less than the Tories”.
It’s far more emotionally satisfying for the Left to decry the Lib Dems as just yellow Conservatives, but the truth is unsurprisingly more subtle. The two parties aren’t the same – particularly under Clegg, after four years as part of a rampantly neoliberal government, they’re near-indistinguishable when it comes to economics. But they’re not identical.
A pure Lib Dem government would be better – less reactionary, elitist, and in thrall to big money – than a pure Tory one. Who knows how Ed Miliband would conduct himself as PM, but a pure Lib Dem government may well have proved marginally better than a Labour one under Blair or Brown. And, in some instances at least, Clegg and friends genuinely have prevented the Tories from being as radically unpleasant as they would’ve been as a majority government.
But, funnily enough, while Clegg was all too eager to reel off the list of vaguely progressive policies his party had managed to push through in return for dancing with the devil (most notably, legalising gay marriage and raising the rate income tax kicks in to £10,000 a year) he was far less willing to acknowledge the fairly catastrophic downsides of him jumping aboard with Cameron, Obsorne and co – the instances in which Lib Dem MPs have blankly voted through measures that Mrs Thatcher would’ve thought twice about implementing, the existence-imperilling cuts to vital public services, the demonisation and humiliation of the sick, the disabled and the unemployed, the bungled privatisation of Royal Mail and the secret sell-off of vast chunks of the NHS, and the basic, unavoidable fact that without Clegg’s support, none of it would’ve been possible.
A party truly committed to ‘fairness’ – another anodyne buzzword that appears to be a favourite of Clegg’s – would’ve let the Tories flounder as a minority government. In the event Cameron and Obsorne submitted budget proposals that were sufficiently community-minded and un-Tory-like to satisfy that commitment, the Lib Dems could’ve provided them with the majority needed to vote them through and prevent constitutional deadlock. And if they didn’t, they could’ve let them sink.
This option was unthinkable in Clegg’s view – it would’ve left the Tories unable to engineer a much-needed economic recovery. But four years later, we’ve seen that ‘recovery’. It amounts to little more than a reboot of the grotesquely unjust one we had before, and that crashed so damagingly – one based on an ecologically disastrous obsession with economic growth, largely motored by London-based finance and the property market in the south-east, that lets the rest of the country stagnate or decline while the rich get richer, the majority get poorer, and the poorest slide further towards destitution, while government merrily hacks away at the institutions that once might have been able to help them out of it.
But that’s by far the worst thing Clegg has done – robotically convert from a cuts-don’t-work anti-austerian to an enthusiastic budget slasher in the space of about a month in the summer of 2010, then sign up to a horribly skewed ‘common sense’ narrative of the last decade that, as a very clever man, he knows is utter garbage.
Now, just like Cameron, Osborne and the rest of the Right, Clegg blames the 2008 financial crisis on New Labour spending too much. In fact, most of the time they were in power, Blair and Brown spent less than Mrs Thatcher did in even her most frugal years at Number Ten – and back when he was still playing the foppish, detoxified New Tory in opposition, David Cameron pledged to match Labour’s spending totals pound for pound. Before the crisis hit, the UK had the lowest public debt of all the advanced capitalist economies, equivalent to just 40% of GDP compared to over 60% in the US, France and Germany, and over 100% in Italy and Japan. The UK’s deficit was just 3% in 2007, and only almost tripled to 11% because the government bailed out the criminally reckless financial sector that had brought about the crisis in the first place.
And, more fundamentally, a country spending more than it takes in is far less of a problem than the Westminster consensus makes out – contrary to that hoary cliché dragged out to justify cutbacks for centuries, the national economy is nothing like a household budget. Governments can print money and raise taxes, and – from ’45 to ’51 most notably – have managed to embark on radical, costly programmes with deficits and public debts much higher than the ones we have now.
But it’s this myth that Clegg and Vince Cable and the other Lib Dems in government now cynically peddle. Labour trashed the economy. We desperately need to ‘balance the budget’, something all four neoliberal parties are now in favour of. Clegg has helped that logic burrow even deeper into the national consciousness, shaping the way ordinary people perceive the world, while letting the Tories use it to radically restructure government and society in the interests of the richest. The effects will devastate a generation, if not several. Mrs Thatcher said there’s no such thing as society – after this, there’ll be as little left of it as there ever has been.
In Glasgow, Clegg spoke for over an hour. Then he was waving vigorously, glad-handing delegates, necking with Miriam, wending his way out through the crowd with awful stamping classical-fusion rock blaring in the background, and, presumably, making a bee-line for a cup of tea and a nice sit down.
Who knows what was going through his head as he vacated the podium. Considering this is a man who admits to frequently weeping to music after a hard day at the office, perhaps, behind the Blair-like self-delusion, he may have an inkling of how he’s going to be remembered after all.
People probably won’t remember his hand in legalising gay marriage or instituting the ‘pupil premium’ – they’ll certainly recall the man who put his party before the country, millions who voted for him and millions of the most vulnerable people in Britain.
And, from the Bemolutionary archives, what we wrote about Clegg’s conference speech three years ago