Nick Clegg isn’t very good at politics. That’s the abiding impression left by his memoir-cum-essay about the state of British and European politics. It’s rather an odd thing to say of a man who was, after all, deputy prime minister in one of the more important governments of recent times, so let me explain.
In Politics: Between the Extremes, Clegg has lots of considered and rational observations on how we run our society and economy, as well as on the working methods of David Cameron, George Osborne and Theresa May. He also has good ideas about how the civil service and the British constitution might be improved. But that’s not politics. That’s government.
Politics is about arguments, about persuading people, by fair means or foul, to lend you their votes and their permission to rule. And this is what baffles Clegg.There is something in that and, as far as it is true, it is also true of many centrist politicians in the Liberal Democrats and beyond.
They are full of proposals for improving society, but they seem innocent of the passions that drive the opinions of the voters.
'Evidence-based policy' is better than the prejudice-based variety, but there is something about the phrase that chills. Maybe that is because it belongs to an age of patrician technocrats that has, for better or worse, passed.
Take the grammar school debate that has been raging for the past couple of days. Some opponents of the idea seem genuinely puzzled when the fact that they themselves went to grammar schools or even public schools is brought up.
As I saw one professor tweet yesterday, the evidence says what the evidence says wherever the person quoting it went to school.
Which is true, but betrays a lack of insight into what it must feel like to be told by someone who has enjoyed advantages you can hardly dream of that your own child must on no account be allowed to share them.
That does not mean grammar schools are a good idea. But it does mean their opponents have got to find more motivating arguments than they have so far.