Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nick Clegg needs to get crunchy again

Nick Clegg won the Liberal Democrat leadership by fighting a favourite’s campaign and saying as little about policy as possible. But before that he gained himself the reputation of being something of a thinker and a libertarian. I can recall him, while still an MEP, speaking at a Liberator fringe meeting and calling for “crunchy Liberalism”.

Five years on from that leadership campaign, Nick gave a speech to the Royal Commonwealth Society. And, to be honest, there was not much that was crunchy about it.

The passage that received most publicity was this:
It is at times like these that Britain needs a party rooted in the centre ground, which anchors the country there. 
The Liberal Democrats are that party. We’re not centre ground tourists. The centre ground is our home. 
While the tribalists in other parties desert the centre ground under pressure, the Liberal Democrats have done the reverse. Under pressure, we’ve moved towards the centre.
This is very much where I came in. Back in 1977, when the Liberal Party was finishing behind the National Front, our only remaining purchase on the public’s attention was the idea that we were a moderate party, a party of the centre.

It is far better to be seen as centrist than extreme, but if your only appeal is that you are in the centre the danger is that you allow your opponents to define your policy, because the centre can shift about.

When our major rivals were led by Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot, it was practically impossible for the Alliance to avoid being the centre party. But it is possible that the next election will see Labour fighting a populist campaign that scapegoats social security claimants, asylum seekers and the like.

Will we then try to find some centre ground on the cigarette-paper thin difference between Labour and the Tories? I hope not: I hope we will fight on values like liberty, justice and equality – all of which have are richer and more motivating than an appeal to centrism.

The spirit of 1977 was also recalled in the passage where Nick channeled David Steel and gently told us off:
The greatest strength of our party is our idealism. But in our strength lies our weakness – because sometimes idealism can turn into dogma, or at least an unwillingness to engage fully with the day-to-day experiences and perspectives of the British people we seek to serve. 
A party of government knows that workable solutions need to be grounded in values – but also that they must respond to the hopes and fears of reasonable people. 
This is the lesson we’ve learnt in government. The challenges of governing at a difficult time have given us a harder edge and a more practical outlook.
I am a great fan of pragmatism, but it seems to me Nick is misunderstanding his own party here.

As far as there is dogma in the Liberal Democrats it comes from our libertarian or economic wing – at least that is my impression from Twitter and the blogs. Meanwhile, the more social liberal critics – and they seem to be who Nick has in mind – are disgruntled because, under his leadership, we have lost so much of our local government base in the North of England. They are every bit as keen on being in power as Nick is.

It is true there were no easy alternatives open to Nick and the party after the last election, but it as well for him to understand the reason for his members' current discontent.

Finally, there is nothing at all crunchy about talking of benefit claimants as though there were children:
For us, that relationship is clear: it is the government's responsibility to ensure every person has the opportunity to get on, but every person must take personal responsibility for using those opportunities by working hard. 
We cannot absolve people of their responsibility for improving their own lives, because to do so would be to turn them into dependants – and so deny their agency and compromise their dignity. You can’t build a stronger economy with people lost to dependency … 
Parents know what I mean. You look at your children and yearn with hope for their future. You do whatever you can to give them every advantage. You worry about the obstacles they will face, and you plan to help them overcome them all. 
But equally, parents know that kids need to learn to look after themselves. Slowly but surely, we guide them into independence and adulthood. Because we know that to be happy, they will need the means and capacity to run their own lives – and pass their love and skills on to the grandchildren they might give you one day.
Nick may well see welfare dependency as a problem, but he needs to find better language than this in which to talk about it.

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