“(Young) people are disinterested in politics and disillusioned in power structures precisely… perhaps more because of Nick Clegg than anybody else” - Russell Brand
"He's there to serve a very important ceremonial function as David Cameron's lapdog-cum-prophylactic protection device for all the difficult things that David Cameron has to do.” - Boris Johnson (again)
It would be fair to say that Nick Clegg hasn’t exactly had it easy since moving in next to Number 10. Neither would it be unfair to say that he and his party have plummeted from a dream election to a nightmare reversal. Despite achieving 23% of the total vote in the 2010 election and 57 seats, polls now imply that they are less popular than UKIP, standing at a relatively dismal 8% (BBC poll of polls).
It’s easy to forget that Nick Clegg was the spearhead for what seemed to be an exciting yellow revolution. Personal highlights for the Liberal leader include his 53.4% share of the vote in Sheffield Hallam and, notably, the Guardian ICM poll showing that 51% of people felt he won the TV debates of the last election. David Cameron and Gordon “I agree with Nick” Brown found themselves struggling to compete with what was, at the time, Cleggmania. But Cleggmania is no more. The stark contrast between past and present is underpinned by the Lib Dem flash mob in Trafalgar square five years ago:
Compared to the scenes at their poster launch last month…
The list of Clegg’s personal blunders combined with Liberal Democrat failures is a long one, to the extent where it is farcical. Highlights include his humbling defeat to Nigel Farage in the famed EU: in vs out debate, in which he polled at a mere 31% to Farage’s 69%. Clegg was also engaged in a satirical battle of oneupmanship with Boris Johnson throughout the last parliament, as some of the quotations above may suggest…the choice metaphor depicting him as David Cameron’s condom was hardly an image booster. However, debates and condoms aside, the greatest catastrophe for Clegg and his party was undoubtedly tuition fees. He made a cast iron promise that tuition fees would not rise if the Lib Dems were in government - a broken promise that will leave a permanent stain on his political career. Students, parents and third parties alike perceive this as an unforgivable sin: a sin so severe that a portion of the old Lib Dem faithful will be lost indefinitely. In fact, the emphasis on this particular lack of achievement often provides a distraction from other, near equally cringeworthy failures to deliver pledges. Take VAT for example: the Liberal Democrats posted billboards to advertise the horrors of a “Tory VAT bombshell”, yet supported George Osbourne’s budget less than two months later. Party failures also include cuts to the police force, reform to the House of Lords and the introduction of political specialist advisors on the government pay roll, twenty of them adhering to Nick Clegg himself.
Personally, I don't mind “poor old Cleggers”. To tell the truth, I think he is one of the best Westminster politicians. Even though it is my generation that bears the burden of his primary broken promise, he is one of the few who makes an active effort to connect to ordinary people. Quips and jibes aside, Nick Clegg obviously had to handle a great deal of responsibility as deputy PM and leader of the Lib Dems. He also has a multitude of commitments, whether they be in the form of quad meetings, the Houses of Parliament or campaigns. Despite all of this, Clegg tries his best to have a conversation with his critics and supporters alike. He hosts a weekly radio show (“Call Clegg”) on LBC, involves himself in interviews and debates at every opportunity, made an appearance on three months ago and boldly issued a public apology for his incompetence with regard to tuition fees. The latter was, incidentally, and went viral on youtube, adding insult to injury for the already wounded Clegg. However, he showed no sign of complaint, taking the parody in his stride and displaying a good sense of humour. Not only does Clegg care about connecting domestically; he speaks French, Spanish, Dutch and German in addition to his native English tongue, often using his linguistic ability to hold meetings with foreign ambassadors and to hold TV interviews across Europe. It is apparent that Clegg really cares about the people he attempts to represent. Therefore, his vilification and nosedive on the personal ratings scale seem at least slightly unjust.
Let us consider Boris Johnson’s final analogy. Albeit crude, it is actually surprisingly accurate. Whilst the PM endured a sizeable share of public disapproval, the proportion of censure inflicted upon Clegg makes Cameron seem like a divinity subject to widespread worship. Even with 15x more people relying on food banks than at the start of the parliament, a broken Tory promise not to raise VAT, net immigration at around 300,000 (promised to be in the 10,000s) and stagnated economic growth, it is the smaller party in coalition that suffered the most.
I think this stemmed from voter expectation. Given the fact that the last hung parliament (that is, prior to 2010) was in 1974, the average citizen with any interest in politics had probably become accustomed to a two horse race. However, the Lib Dem entry into coalition flipped British politics on its head. Those who supported them firmly believed that they would have a stronger voice in government, a more significant influence and the ability to make real change based on their manifesto. People had become accustomed to the shortfalls and underachievement of governments past. They placed their faith in a party that stood for fairness and condoned the broken promises made by their rivals. What they failed to consider, perhaps, was the fact that the Lib Dems were by far the smaller party in the coalition: Clegg’s party won just 57 seats to the Conservatives’ 306. Compromises were inevitable, especially in a formal coalition arrangement - perhaps it was foolish for even the most optimistic of Liberal voters to expect anything less than what they got.
Just to clarify; in a coalition, ministers from both parties are bound by collective responsibility. This means that on key issues (e.g. economy, health, immigration) they must agree to support all cabinet decisions. However, on certain issues such as tuition fees and the renewal of trident, Lib Dem MPs were allowed to vote as they (or generally their party whip) wished. It is therefore surprising that 28 voted for a rise in tuition fees, including Vince Cable, Danny Alexander and Clegg himself. This was arguably the greatest grievance of the old Lib Dem faithful; although failure to deliver a promise caused frustration in itself, having nearly half of their MPs vote against their own policy was, quite frankly, a joke.
You may have decided by this point that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats failed miserably in government. That they exerted very little influence, if any. That we might as well have had no Lib Dem MPs in the house of commons at all. Despite the conviction of lost liberal dogmas that this article has emphasised so far, I encourage you to think again. For it is false to declare that Nick Clegg conceded on every issue. Not only did he block numerous Tory bills: he even chipped in with a few policies of his own, branded distinctly with the yellow albatross of Liberal Democrat ideas and values.
Clegg was, in reality, far from Cameron’s fluffy little pet. On countless occasions, it was he and his party who directly prevented Tory policies being introduced. The general consensus might conclude that any action taken by the Liberals was minor, but the truth of the matter couldn’t be more different. At a party conference in 2013, Clegg reeled off a list of 16 policies that he had blocked in a “tooth and nail” fight over the course of parliament. These encompass non-renewal of the trident nuclear program, the snoopers’ charter (legislation to keep records of individuals’ browsing), inheritance tax cuts for millionaires, the ability to fire workers for no reason and profit making in state schools - to name a few. Such significant interventions live in the shadow of a few failures, which is extremely harsh when the great variety of relevant action is considered.
Additionally, the Lib Dems have numerous fulfilled promises and achievements in government. They claim credit for the establishment of a green investment bank, 0.7% GDP expenditure on foreign aid, scrapping ID cards, reforming the banking system, introducing a pupil premium and raising the tax free allowance to £10,600. Granted, some of these policies (e.g. the green investment bank) also featured in the Conservative’s 2010 manifesto. However, there are some that ring specifically to the tune of “stronger economy, fairer society” (the Liberal Democrat slogan). Equal marriage, extra funding for the most disadvantaged children and a rise in the personal allowance all embody this stress on equality. It is therefore clear that, on what most people perceived as a solely blue canvas, there were occasional splashes of yellow that distinguished it and completed the governmental portrait. Not a single decision made in government was passed if Nick Clegg hadn’t eventually given it the go-ahead. Without the presence of Nick Clegg in 70 Whitehall and the Liberal Democrats in government, things would have been very different.