Nick Clegg’s Letter from the Leader: “Smack bang in the liberal centre – the only place you can deliver real, liberal freedom”

Tory planning minister Nick Coles’ admission this week that the Conservative brand is still tainted provides the cue for Nick Clegg to stake the liberal flag squarely in the centre ground once again. The Tories see us too statist, he says, while Labour sees us as too hard – Nick reckons this confirms the Lib Dems are exactly where we should be. And he defines his version of what liberalism is: “liberalism is about enabling everyone to get on in life”. Read his letter in full, below…

libdem letter from nick clegg

This week there’s been a lot of chat in the Westminster village about an issue close to our party’s heart: liberalism.

Specifically, on whether or not the Conservative party can be liberal. Sparked, on this occasion, by a Tory Minister and arch-moderniser, Nick Boles, conceding that their detoxification project has failed.

To be honest, it’s was always going to be a bit tricky to modernise when you believe, for example, in penalising the unmarried through the tax system, or using “go home vans” in the immigration system. But that’s the Conservative party’s business.

Our business is making sure people know that, no matter which way the Tories go, this coalition government will never lurch to the right – because we won’t allow it. Nor would we let Labour pull the country left. We need to tell people that there’s still a party that will always shun the extremes and govern from the liberal centre: the Liberal Democrats. The clue’s in the name.

Some Conservatives say we’ve gone too soft and too statist. Bizarrely, they’ve even recently suggested that wanting to have qualified teachers in the classroom is somehow illiberal. An act of state interference so excessive, it seems, it would have John Stuart Mill turning in his grave and George Orwell lost for words.

Some in the Labour party, on the other hand, insist we’ve become too hard – not ‘the nice party’ anymore. They point to the difficult decisions we are taking to pay off the deficit. Apparently it would be more progressive to let our children foot the bill.

But one thing I’ve learnt: when your opponents accuse you of heading in opposite directions, it’s normally a sign that you’re exactly where you need to be.

For us, that’s smack bang in the liberal centre. The only place you can deliver real, liberal freedom.

In essence, liberalism is about enabling everyone to get on in life – without the state forever looking over your shoulder and irrespective of the circumstances of your birth. Liberals strive to give people two things: the freedom to be who you are, as well as the opportunity to be who you can be.

Everything our party does in this government should be seen through this prism. From blocking the “snoopers’ charter”, which would have given the authorities access to every website you visit; to handing back unprecedented powers to our towns and cities; to cutting taxes so you hold onto more of the money you earn. It’s all about empowering people to achieve their potential.

Because life chances are shaped from such an early age, I’ve argued endlessly for investment in the early years, when it can make the greatest difference. In a truly liberal society every child has the chance to flourish, whatever their background. So we’ve secured billions to help the poorest pupils in our schools; we’re delivering new, free childcare for toddlers in the homes who need it most; and in the coming weeks we’ll be setting out how we’ll pay for free school meals for children of infant school age, to help give all young children the best start in life.”

British liberalism is alive and kicking. For the people pondering its whereabouts this week, you just need to know where to look.

Nick Clegg MP

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33 Comments

  • Melanie Harvey 24th Nov '13 - 1:04pm

    We must beware of just sitting on the fence whilst one extreme and the other fight it out. Time to get waist deep in the battle and stop the bully boys on each side of the said fence.. Hit the cold harsh realities of the others policy and what they have amounted to, which is not very much of anything of real value to the public at large and meer token gestures at best, so it shouldnt be to hard surely???. It seems to me the UK want definitive change and fairness, something that actually is not happening but then again I dont think it ever has and therein lay the problem..

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Nov '13 - 1:22pm

    Good letter.

  • Tony Greaves 24th Nov '13 - 1:37pm

    Another deeply depressing missive.

    “In essence, liberalism is about enabling everyone to get on in life” No, not really. Not “in essence”.

    Tony

  • I’m with Nick on most of this, but yet again he talks about “paying off the deficit”, which he has been ridiculed for before. Debt, deficit… they’re different things. We may be reducing the deficit (after an embarrassingly long time it has resumed its downward path) but the thing you want to pay off is the debt, and we’re nowhere near starting to do that. The national debt will have something like doubled by the end of this parliament, with a sizeable deficit continuing into the next. It would take a miracle for this not to be handed on to our children.

  • Bill le Breton 24th Nov '13 - 3:02pm

    There is a world of difference between Clegg’s, “It’s all about empowering people to achieve their potential.” and “Helping people to take and use power.”

    The first , although seeming to have a Liberal end, relies upon an illiberal means, and thus betrays the author’s fundamental usurpation of that power. It is not ‘his’ or anyone else’s to bestow . Empowering is an act of patronage. It can be reversed. It comes with strings. It reveals an authoritarian fist within the velvet glove.

    A Liberal society can only be brought nearer by Liberal means.

  • Frank Booth 24th Nov '13 - 4:14pm

    No surprise to see Clegg going down his Liberal centre cul-de-sac again. When I heard it at the Party conference I thought it was time to sell shares in the Lib Dems and the polls since have reflected that. The ‘centre ground’ is not an entirely clear concept and just saying Labour are to the left and the Tories to the right is just too easy. It’s politically lazy. What exactly is wrong with the Tories and Labour? And Nick says being ‘liberal’ is what his politics is all about. That’s funny because at the last general election I seem to remember it was all about fairness. And no lurch to the right???? Who does he think he’s kidding. Why do you think John Major has been piping up of late causing embarrassment for Cameron. Because he thinks the Tories are not right wing enough? This is a far more right wing government than Major’s, who never blamed the poor for being unemployed, produced go home vans or tried to privatise state education on mass. What did Clegg make of his leader Cameron’s speech to the Lord Mayor’s banquet. Does anyone seriously believe he’s anything other than a corporate crony? But don’t forget Nick. Cameron couldn’t have done it without him.

  • Frank Booth 24th Nov '13 - 4:14pm

    No surprise to see Clegg going down his Liberal centre cul-de-sac again. When I heard it at the Party conference I thought it was time to sell shares in the Lib Dems and the polls since have reflected that. The ‘centre ground’ is not an entirely clear concept and just saying Labour are to the left and the Tories to the right is just too easy. It’s politically lazy. What exactly is wrong with the Tories and Labour? And Nick says being ‘liberal’ is what his politics is all about. That’s funny because at the last general election I seem to remember it was all about fairness. And no lurch to the right???? Who does he think he’s kidding. Why do you think John Major has been piping up of late causing embarrassment for Cameron. Because he thinks the Tories are not right wing enough? This is a far more right wing government than Major’s, who never blamed the poor for being unemployed, produced go home vans or tried to privatise state education on mass. What did Clegg make of his leader Cameron’s speech to the Lord Mayor’s banquet. Does anyone seriously believe he’s anything other than a corporate crony? But don’t forget Nick. Cameron couldn’t have done it without him.

  • Stephen Hesketh 24th Nov '13 - 5:48pm

    If I were to agree with certain Labour and Tory policies and to face equal criticism from each for those Liberal Democrat policies with which they did not agree, I fail to see how this would make me a centrist. The constant harping of the Clegg team about the Liberal Democrats being in the centre does nothing to inspire me or ease my concerns about the direction in which they seek to lead me. Setting aside this equi-distant centre party view, it does not accurately represent either our philosophy or our policies. The party of which I am a member does not neatly fit in to the simplistic left-right spectrum; the party of which I am a member ‘ … exists to build and (then?) safeguard a free and open society … to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community … in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. Not some sort of soft centre party but a party of radical reform.
    This, I submit, is a much more promising position on which to base a popular movement to strengthen our party and reinvigorate the British political scene.

  • @stephen

    to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community … in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. Not some sort of soft centre party but a party of radical reform.

    Well yes but that is what people like me were promised at the last election by Clegg et al….plus a new kind of politics….sadly on so many issues the party has let people down who might have believed in that vision. Will anyone listen next time?

  • “When your opponents accuse you of heading in opposite directions, it’s normally a sign that you’re exactly where you need to be.”

    To be sure and begorrah it is! (with apologies for the non PC reference)

  • So what is the centre? Presumably being on the centre means siding with majority opinion on every issue does it not? Otherwise how are you on the centre?

    The centre ground on immigration would probably be to close the borders.
    On the EU it might be in favour of complete withdrawal.
    On the railways and public utilities it means re-nationalisation
    On the banks….?

  • If one of your opponents is your coalition partner and the other can’t tell the difference by tainting both, it starts to suggest the centre ground may be a very obscure place for the voter to be in.

    Take the policy on the Snoopers Charter. I distinctly remember the reports of the Leaders Office taking its time to figure out why there was such a huge problem on this issue. It seems uncannily bureaucratic.

    Now when it comes to somehow defining liberalism by who it is not, I would be wondering if the Leader and his office really get what it means for the wider party, its followers *and* its critics.

  • Steve Griffiths 25th Nov '13 - 8:57am

    Gareth.

    “Indeed, this missive is particularly dismal in the way it confuses Liberalism with soggy centrism, as the comments above consistently argue.”

    Yep, quite right. Of course it has been said on LDV before that Shirley Williams famously said of a centre party, that:

    “A centre party would have no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values”.

    She was absolutely correct; that’s where the Lib Dems are now – the vacuous centre!

  • jenny barnes 25th Nov '13 - 9:09am

    So whose interests do the LDs in government serve? Those of capital? or those of the people? This letter seems to say neither and both – which is not exactly a fantastic selling proposition, is it.

  • Clegg writes “We need to tell people that there’s still a party that will always shun the extremes and govern from the liberal centre: the Liberal Democrats. The clue’s in the name”.

    Well yes the clue is in the name and Clegg has failed to see the clue or simply fails to understand the clue.
    The name of the party is ‘LIBERAL DEMOCRAT”. It is a short name decide by a vote of the members of the party; we had tried some longer names but the party membership voted for ‘LIBERAL DEMOCRAT”.

    The clue Clegg fails to spot in the party name ‘LIBERAL DEMOCRAT”. is that there is no word ‘CENTRE’. It is not there, it is absent, there is no hint or trace of it, for all we know it is “pining for the Fjords”, but it is certainly not in the name of the party.

    To make matters worse Clegg goes on to cite George Orwell in support of his rather odd statements.

    Someone needs to remind Clegg that Orwell was what today’s BBC would describe as a ‘jihadi’. He was someone who had gone to fight in a foreign war for a cause in which he believed. It was NOT the cause of a Centre Party. Under today’s coalition government Orwell would have been in prison, or under surveillance or in receipt of a one-way ticket to CIA rendition.

    Anyone in any doubt about what Orwell’s opinions should read ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’.
    In Chapter 22 he describes the life of a plongeur, describes the attitudes of the rich to the poor, and how out of touch the privileged and the establishment are. It ought to be compulsory reading for anyone in Clegg’s small circle, especially defenders of the bedroom tax.

    Orwell wrote – ” the trouble is that intelligent people, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. … … there is no question of setting the mob loose. The mob is already loose now – in the shape of rich men- is using its power to set up enormous treadmills of boredom … ”

    The essence of a Centre Party is that it wants the status quo. It does not want to move from the status quo (either to left or to right) and even if it is forced to move, it does not want to move too far or too quickly. Because if you had rich parents, and you went to Westminster School, and your children already have a thousand advantages over others, why would you want to change the status quo?

    The protectors of the status quo like Clegg scare people with fear of the mob, or fear of the deficit, or fear of some unmentioned “extremes”. Citing Orwell in an attempt to try to justify such Centrist nonsense is really very , very stupid indeed.

  • Peter Tyzack 25th Nov '13 - 1:31pm

    with friends like these, Nick.. but perhaps you should take note of the comments. We are nothing if we are not radical, and as Charles said, our true position is not left of or right of any other party but ‘out in front’.

  • Simon Banks 25th Nov '13 - 2:05pm

    Some of Nick Clegg’s letters are good. Some have an air of empty cheerleading. This, I think, fits neither category. I find the constant reiteration of the idea that we must be right because we’re in the centre irritating for three reasons : on some issues, such as civil liberties, we’re not in the centre at all, so going on about the centre is conceding to our opponents their way of measuring politics; the right position on any issue can be towards one extreme rather than right in the middle; and if we aim to be in the centre, we tie ourselves to moving one way or the other as either extreme moves further out or moderates a bit.

    I’m also bothered by the much-repeated phrase about “getting on in life”. I can see why research might show this to be a popular phrase and why we might use it a fair bit in campaigning, but it is NEVER a definition of Liberalism or a reliable four word summary of what we value most. It has a decidedly materialistic sound to it. Ask people in general what they understand by “getting on in life” and it’ll be about promotion, making more money, getting good qualifications, not about love, creativity, faith, understanding, loving support. Do we care about, say, a 90-year-old person with a degenerative medical condition? Is Liberalism relevant to that person? I’d say yes, but I can’t see how “getting on in life” is relevant. It doesn’t much seem to fit my aims in retirement, either, or someone who chooses artistic creativity over promotion and a good income, or who dedicates their life to a cause.

    Finally, Nick’s definition is all to do with individual freedom and progress. We should not forget that the party’s own summary of its values runs “liberty, equality and community”. I’m pretty sure some MPs do not think empowering communities or helping people to do things through free association with others is that important – and this letter might, no doubt wrongly, suggest Nick was one.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Nov '13 - 4:35pm

    Nick Clegg

    In essence, liberalism is about enabling everyone to get on in life – without the state forever looking over your shoulder and irrespective of the circumstances of your birth.

    As it says in our party constitution, we want to build a society where “no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”. The way Nick Clegg has put it suggests the main barrier to this is the “state forever looking over your shoulder”. This IS the very shift to the right he says he is against. Those words about poverty, ignorance and conformity seem design (and perhaps they were) to counter the currently trendy idea (trendy because it has been heavily pushed by the rich and powerful) that the only barriers to freedom are those imposed by the state.

    The reality is that in recent decades there has been a big power shift away from the state towards the big global corporations. These corporations push states around now, not vice versa. We are no longer living in an era where politics is dominated by the state socialist ideas that in the 20th century were thought to be a way forward, or their close cousin, fascism. Going on as if this is still the main topic in politics is fighting the old battles. The really big question now is why the trendy free market theories haven’t delivered the freedom to all that they promise.

    There is nothing in what Clegg has written which acknowledges the huge benefits that come from growing up in a wealthy and privileged family (like his), and huge barrier that comes from growing up in a poorer family. This is not just about education. For example, someone who has family wealth to help them buy a flat to live in has hugely more freedom than someone who must pay huge rents or mortgage payments, or live forever in an uncertain state where they could be homeless at any time. Taking away the guarantee of a minimum state of housing available to all that was provided in the days when there was council housing available to all was a HUGE reversal of liberalism, no matter how much the political right likes to make out the opposite. I certainly don’t see the way the state helped me when I was young – council housing, subsidised university education, and much else, as somehow a barrier to my freedom – it was what gave me the freedom I enjoyed then and now.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Nov '13 - 5:13pm

    Joe Otten

    Yes, but that could be interpreted as just no formal distinction due to race or title etc. To me, his wording still very much fits in with the right-wing idea that it’s enough to have that, and everyone is “free”.

    I’m not actually saying his wording here is all hugely offensive, or that I fundamentally disagree with it, it’s all a matter of what aspects are emphasised and what are not. I think he needs to be a lot more clear on the way in which poverty can restrict freedom and the possibility of an active state helping rebalance things, and a lot less pushing the right-wing “the state is the big enemy” line. How he is expressing “liberalism” here is NOT as it has traditionally been expressed in our party, not EVER. It is very much in the line the political right are using now to try and capture the word and use it to mean something different.

  • Richard Church 25th Nov '13 - 8:47pm

    The comments here amaze me. If Nick was writing an undergraduate essay on liberalism, I wouldn’t have given him very high marks. But he isn’t, he’s writing a letter to supporters with a particular purpose of differentiating ourselves from our opponents and setting out in a simple and readable style to those who are not political philosophers where he sees our party contributing to government, and what our distinctive approach is. In doing so he uses language that we know resonates with most likely supporters (but clearly not contributors to this site) and its flavour is clearly Liberal. For the purpose for which it is intended, its fine, but some people will never be happy.

  • This idea that one can know whether or not the party is in the right place by reference to what other people say about it is a classic example of what Ayn Rand once called the error of “social metaphysics” – in other words acting as if reality is something constructed by other people’s ideas and not something which exists independently and can be objectively investigated. What a joke that people who have never read her think he is an example of her ideas.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Nov '13 - 10:18pm

    Richard Church

    But he isn’t, he’s writing a letter to supporters with a particular purpose of differentiating ourselves from our opponents and setting out in a simple and readable style to those who are not political philosophers where he sees our party contributing to government, and what our distinctive approach is. In doing so he uses language that we know resonates with most likely supporters (but clearly not contributors to this site) and its flavour is clearly Liberal.

    But the problem is, it DOESN’T resonate. I don’t think the old left-centre-right language works any more. Most people see ALL politicians as an out-of-touch elite. In many ways that advantages the political right, because it means even the very idea of a politics of the left has been lost. But I don’t think it means people are really right-wing either – I certainly don’t find many people who share the Tories’ idea that the way to make almost anything better is to hand control of it to big business. I think the problem is that people want a politics of the left – a politics which is on the side of the little person against big powers – but don’t know where to get it, or even what its language might be. I find in conversations with people who aren’t particularly political that they often veer between idea that are right-wing and ideas that are left-wing without seeing it in those terms.

    Clegg’s idea here that Labour is in danger of pulling the country to the left is ludicrous. Labour is way to the right of where it used to be. I don’t think there is any point in us trying to squeeze between it and the even further right Conservative Party. Much of Clegg’s language echoes that which the social elite has used to pull this country to the economic right. Essentially it’s saying that Thatcherite-style economics is “liberalism”, and all we need to make it a bit better and fairer is a little more money spent on schools. I don’t think that tackles at all, or shows any understanding, of the huge gulf in society which has been growing steadily wider since 1979.

  • “They point to the difficult decisions we are taking to pay off the deficit. Apparently it would be more progressive to let our children foot the bill.”

    Student loans anyone?

    “To me, his wording still very much fits in with the right-wing idea that it’s enough to have that, and everyone is “free”. ”

    To use the old phrase, ‘Everyone is free to dine at The Ritz’.

  • John Tilley nailed it with his Orwell commentary. Depressing.

    I don’t want centrists. I want liberals. I want good reasons not to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, not this guff about equidistance… again.

  • Clegg writes –
    “… … the difficult decisions we are taking to pay off the deficit. Apparently it would be more progressive to let our children foot the bill.”

    I really hate it when the political elite talk about their “Difficult Decisions”.
    Just how DIFFICULT were those decisions for Clegg ? Take the decision on the bedroom tax. Just how difficult was that decision for someone with his wealth, his very large and expensive house in fashionable Putney, not to mention his other properties? How difficult was it for him to decide to fleece the council house tenants with a ‘spare room’?
    How great were his difficulties compared to the difficulties of the old lady who lives alone in a council flat and has a ‘spare room’ after her children have grown up and moved away because they cannot afford to live in the same area as their mother because there is no council housing left and not a chance of buying or renting anything ?

    A ‘spare room’ is obviously not a luxury that should be lavished on someone who would like her children or grandchildren to be able to visit her this Christmas. This ‘spare room’ must be grabbed back by the state so that the Deputy Prime Minister can boast how he is paying off the deficit, just as soon as he gets back from his Christmas trip to the in-laws in sunny Spain. Whilst he is jet-setting around the world making his “Difficult Decisions” does he ever spare a thought for the consequences of those decisions and the difficulties he is enforcing others?

    It is an inconvenient truth for Clegg that the deficit is in fact still there. It has not changed that much from 2010 when he was warning of rioting and mob rule. So what were those “difficult decisions” really for? Were they not simply to carry through those rightwing dogmatic policies that the Tories always wanted?

  • A Social Liberal 27th Nov '13 - 12:57am

    Well said Caracatus – or should that be well said David Steel

  • Nick Clegg’s scapegoating of immigrants is his most unforgiveable Tory collaboration yet
    OWEN JONES The Independent Wednesday 27 November 2013

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/nick-cleggs-scapegoating-of-immigrants-is-his-most-unforgiveable-tory-collaboration-yet-8967617.html

  • Robert Wootton 29th Nov '13 - 12:25am

    Disadvantaged and deprived families and children is an inexorable output/ symptom of a defective political and economic system. To end deprivation and disadvantage, it is necessary to change the system. Structural change to the UK political economy is essential. Policy initiatives and proposals that tackle the undesirable social and economic problems we are confronted with is just so much string and gaffer tape trying to hold together a ramshackle heath robinson contraption that constitutes our socio-economic system. Political solutions will not work.

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  • By A Post-Liberal Future? | The Muslim Debate Initiative Blog on Sun 19th January 2014 at 10:39 am.

    […] marked by the 1960s rights revolution and the idea of human equality—and who could disagree with Nick Clegg’s description of liberalism as ‘enabling everyone to get on in life, without the state looking over your shoulder and […]

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