An audience with Nick Clegg

“Good evening Mr Haw!” I said cheerily as I wandered past the assorted tents and placards still disfiguring the east side of Parliament Square; but the legendary peace campaigner studiously ignored my outstretched hand. I thought this just a touch rude, but reasoned afterwards that he must have taken me for a member of the ruling classes. An easy mistake to make – I was, after all, most finely tailored from head to toe for the latest in a series of blogger interviews, most kindly organised by the Millennium Elephant, this time with the leader of the Liberal Democrats himself, Nick Clegg! Here’s all I remember of the evening:

Jo Christie-Smith asked Nick about our much-heralded “narrative” and, on a related theme, Helen Duffett questioned Nick regarding our media profile, or rather lack of it. To reinforce the point, Helen produced a pair of “media goggles” with a red lens on one side, and blue on the other – the point being that the media tend to view politics in terms of a straight divide between Labour and Conservative, thus marginalising the Liberal Democrats. Nick acknowledged the problem and assured us that we have people on the case in Cowley Street, but I was heartened to learn that he is not obsessing over the media. Nick says he doesn’t even read the newspapers every day, and tends to think that their influence is on the wane.

Somewhere along the line, Nick and I got into a mild disagreement over David Cameron. I quite like Cameron, seeing the deeply reactionary forces on his backbenches as being more of the problem as far as the Conservatives are concerned. But Nick is not remotely impressed with Cameron, whom he regards as superficial and deeply conservative, notwithstanding some obvious movement towards a place of sanity which has taken place under his watch. I will naturally bow to Nick’s better judgement, but a brief survey of some voting figures from last week serve to highlight the point I was trying to make:

The evening before we saw Nick, David Howarth and Evan Harris were busy seeing off the oppressive, defunct, and frankly embarrassing crime of “blasphemy” in the House of Commons. The division was never in doubt; nevertheless 57 MPs voted in a desperate attempt to retain blasphemy legislation in the 21st century – virtually all of them Conservatives. So while both Cameron and Clegg were among the Ayes that evening, it would appear that at least a quarter of the Conservative parliamentary party are completely mad! In short, there is a rich seam to be mined here, if only Liberal Democrats could be persuaded to openly embrace a more radical secular agenda. But I digress!

Paul Walter wanted to know whether, what with Labour steadily losing confidence by the hour, there might be any scope for applying pressure on electoral reform for Westminster. Nick was adamant that he has no intention of flirting with Labour on this, or indeed any other issue. But Jo wanted to know why we are so bad at fighting PR elections (echoing a point made recently by Jonathan Calder). The sad truth is that proportional representation in Scotland, Wales, or London has not thus far led to a dramatic change in Liberal Democrats fortunes. The reasons may be various, but some aspects of the recent mayoral elections might give us pause for thought:

For example, Helen may want to get away from the red and blue “media goggles,” but how are we to prevent the media from asking the obvious (and entirely legitimate) question as to where one is intending to cast one’s second preference vote? Brian Paddick resisted this up to a point, but was unable to avoid letting out a few hints along the way, before eventually “declaring” for the Left List after the close of poll (the less said about that the better). Helen also spoke on the tube home of a large number of erroneously filled ballot papers at her local count. It may be a shade condescending to suggest that not all of the electorate can get their heads around the system, but it may also be a shade true.

Gavin Whenman asked Nick what single law he would like to see repealed. After a short pause, Nick responded “ID cards,” and Millennium gave the air a little fluffy punch. But I have a serious reservation about our position on ID cards, so it was time for me to challenge Nick as to why he has stated that, when the moment arises, he will refuse to surrender information to the ID card database, taking his case to court if necessary. Put bluntly, he has promised to break the law. I put it to Nick that, in the abstract, this was undermining of the rules of the game called democracy, in which we are surely all engaged in order to bring about whatever change we desire.

Nick conceded that a number of people from within the party had cautioned him against breaking the law. But he nevertheless stood firmly by what he has said in the past, holding up the example of Harry Willcock, the much romanticised figure who is said to have brought down the previous ID card scheme (a hangover of World War II) with the immortal words, “I am a Liberal and I am against this sort of thing!” Harry did not actually win his case (how could he? – he was clearly in breach of the law), but the judge’s remarks are thought to have hastened the end of the scheme which came about in 1952.

This is all well and good, but Nick Clegg is leader of the Liberal Democrats, whereas Harry Willcock was just a dry cleaner (nothing against dry cleaners – they do a fantastic job). I can’t think of any precedent for a party leader who has appeared to endorse law-breaking, and I’m not convinced this would be an entirely happy precedent for Nick to set. Another thing that troubles me is the sort of company that we might appear to be keeping. I’m thinking here of all the libertarian fruitcakes of this world, not to mention the aforementioned “inhabitants” of Parliament Square – people who seem to have given up on democracy entirely, preferring to live in a tent to make their point.

Somewhat exaggeratedly, I described Nick’s stance on ID cards as being what I thought was his biggest mistake but, as Nick rightly pointed out, nothing has actually happened yet. The question is: do we want it to? Should Nick be breaking the law? He first set out his position before he became party leader – should he be sticking to it now? Should the baton not instead pass to the present home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne? Or should we in fact simply all obey the law like we’re supposed to do? Take a look a Nick’s video from October and see what you think.

P.S. Alix Mortimer and Linda Jack went on the vital issues of tax, poverty, and redistribution; but I’m afraid I’m having a little difficulty recalling in detail what Nick said here (and besides this article is long enough), so please refer to those respective blogs!

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90 Comments

  • Grammar Police 14th May '08 - 10:17am

    On Cameron – obviously very intelligent. Realises the Tories will not win unless they move back to the centre, and with a little help from the media he’s managed to create a more centrist mood music without actually having any policies.
    As far as I can tell, Cameron is either excremely right-wing (cf his central involvement in Michael Howard’s dog-whistle election campaign) or else he’s actually completely ideologically unburdened . . .

  • Clegg released his expenses today didn’t he? £7k on carpets… how does that work out?? Can you ask him about that one next time there’s an interview??

  • Paul Griffiths 14th May '08 - 8:21pm

    “A willingness to accept the consequences” almost, but does not quite, capture the difference between civil disobedience and common criminality. Being arrested, possibly charged, possibly convicted and then possibly fined and/or jailed are not the unfortunate by-products of an act of disobedience but are actually the outcomes the protestor is intending. The civil disobedient is highlighting what she holds to be an unjust law by deliberately breaking it, and deliberately bringing the criminal justice system down on her head. Mr Boyce’s insurance example would be nearer the mark if, having decided not to insure my car in protest at, say, having to subsidise the poor driving of others, I immediately went straight round to the local police station and handed myself in.

  • Hywel Morgan 14th May '08 - 10:30pm

    “The £2.7 billion compensation package is going to have to come from somewhere too.”

    Borrowing. The last governemnt to borrow to cut taxes to win an election was the Tories in 1992. Worked out well for them in the medium term.

    At least they were borrowing to cut taxes as we headed out of an economic downturn though!

  • observant bystander 15th May '08 - 2:06am

    Can you really blame Mr. Haw for refusing your proffered handshake?

    Particularly when you describe his protest materials as “disfiguring the East side of Parliament Square”.

  • “The ACA is paid to reimburse MPs for necessary costs incurred when staying away from their main home for the purpose of performing Parliamentary duties.”

    “Service & Maintenance £7,007.63”

    “The Service and Maintenance cost in the breakdown covers extensive repair work that needed to be carried out on Nick Clegg’s Sheffield home. The property was bought in early 2006 and was in a neglected condition where the kitchen, living room and garden were in need of one-off repair work to make the house fit for normal use.
    A summary of the work is below:
    Supply and fitting of carpet, flooring, blinds and curtains
    Repair of garage
    Replacing light fittings
    Plastering and decoration of living room
    Supply and fitting of pipework
    Plastering and tiling of kitchen wall
    Repair and maintenance of garden”

    So this is “necessary costs incurred when staying away from their main home for the purpose of performing Parliamentary duties.”???

    Now… I’m sure he does use his home for his parlimentary work. And I’m sure most other MPs are claiming the same kind of thing. I can’t help feeling that if it were any other industry sector… (whilst he might be paid more for doing the same kind of leadership role in another sector in the first place) there’s no way someone would be able to claim this kind of stuff on their expenses.

    IE… if the MD of a large company was claiming this stuff- would the board find it justifiable?

    I do realise the majority of people in parliament claim every penny they can… but is this not some of what disenfranchises voters and creates apathy.

    Most people get paid a salary and have to use that to pay for maintainance on their home- regardless of whether they use it for work purposes! To the ordinary tax payer, they look at what they earn… they look at what MPs earn… then they look at these kind of expenses… and the amount they pay in tax themselves… and they conclude that they don’t want to vote for the whole system… let alone anything else!

    Its a hard one. I can’t say there’s a person who wouldn’t claim everything they can get, and I dare say this is a great deal more conservative than what the majority claim.

    It is good that if we make statements saying everyone should publish expenses, then we follow through on them. In the long run, yes, it would provide greater transparancy- which could help rebuild some trust amongst the public. But I wonder whether in the short term, it could have the opposite effect.

    Interesting. I’m more raising the question than arguing any particular point.

    Have any ldv members been able to ever claim that kind of figure for maintainance and repairs on their home from a commercial employer?

    Do we think that voters will be more re-engaged by the transparancy of more MPs publishing their expenses… or more disenfranchised with what is actually paid for in those expenses? (I’m sure the majority of MPs from Labour & Tories have far more tenuous things listed).

  • But most companies relocating you will pay for one home surely… not two…

  • Its not so much of a criticism of being honest and looking after one’s family. More of how the general population percieve their taxes to be spent, and thus how this impacts on voter apathy.

    Like I said, I think his figures are probably very conservative compared to most of Westminster. But most of the UK population do not work in Westminster, or for companies that rehouse them to the states expenses paid. £23,500 was the figure sited by the BBC in January for the average income people in Britain would be recieving this year. To me, it just seems like a stark contrast.

  • That is £23,500 gross (ie, before the taxman takes his cut).

    I agree with Mat, James and Alix. If we see Parliament as the centre of political gravity in this country and not the ill-mannered talking-shop it often appears, then MPs should be paid comparably to other senior public servants, such as high court judges and permanent under-secretaries. If, on the other hand, Parliament is just a useless freakshow and a rubber-stamp for hidden elites (as David Icke would have it), and we are happy with that, then we muddle along with the present antiquated system.

    The same principle applies to councillors. If councils are to be member-led rather than officer-led, then portfolio holders should be paid comparably to other professionals.

    People expect their GPs to earn £100k per annnum, and the surgeons who operate on them £140k plus. So why are we denouncing politicians as greedy money-grubbers with their snouts in the trough? Unlike doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc, politicians have to schlepp around the country on a weekly basis and are subjected to a barrage of abuse and vilification in what passes for the press. One almost needs danger money!

    The crucial issue is the value we place on democracy.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th May '08 - 10:10pm

    Why is there such a fuss made about the salaries and expenses of MPs when senior adminstrators of private companies get vastly more? It seems to me that those who complain about the former and not the latter have an anti-democratic agenda.

    At one time I considered seriously pushing myself forward to get on the approved list and fight a good seat, but the work effort involved and the insecurity of employment as an MP didn’t seem to me to be balanced by the salary in comparison to what I earn as a university lecturer. I.e. it would be an increase in salary, but not enough to compensate for loss of a safe job and taking on of one which is enormously time consuming.

  • Laurence, that’s a bit unfair on yourself, the rest of the population and particularly all full-time parents.

    Most paid employment takes up less than a half of most people’s waking week, so what else we can fit in depends entirely on how organised and dedicated we are at fitting it in.

    The highest-paid in society are remunerated so well because the trade-off between acquiring extra responsibilities and paying functionaries to fulfil necessary supporting roles creates extra value for the general well-being, though our ability to measure this isn’t always initially apparent, while at the opposite end of the economic divide the time freedom enables us to explore other areas of equally valuable interest.

    For large sections of society taking care of themselves or family members constitutes a full-time job (I suspect even you eat, wash, clean your clothes, keep a reasonably tidy house, keep up a social life etc), so demeaning your life and their’s by defining personal qualities according to the volume of an individual’s commitment to economic activity amounts to no more than empty materialism (though this is probably accounted for and explained by your take on personal spirituality).

    I’m just surprised at your judgemental attitude towards the possibility of individual potential.

  • There is, of course, a distinction between a work of fiction (Terry Pratchett) and a serious work of investigative journalism that requires many 100s of hours of research (Norman Baker).

    Part of an MP’s role is scrutiny, and much of that is done on committees largely beyond the public gaze. Norman’s investigation of the murder of Dr Kelly falls within that. A government scientist working on WMD is murdered and the authorities try (somewhat unpersuasively) to pass it off as suicide. Thank God we have public servants as dedicated as Norman Baker who will go in there and dig out the truth.

    Of course, there are those who continue to decry Norman’s efforts, and they do so for one of two reasons:-

    (1) They consider that Dr Kelly’s killers were right to do what they did (or even if they don’t, they believe the protection of the reputation of elite power structures is more important than bringing his murderers to justice).

    (2) They adopt a pseudo-ideological pose that says that government is always truthful and benevolent and those who think it is sometimes otherwise are cranks to be mocked.

  • “I really don’t want Westminster populated by “average” Britons. I want our MPs to be the best of British, and to do that they need to be valued more than doctors, lawyers, etc. JS Mill, Ricardo and Sir Isaac Newton were all MPs, but they all had private money behind them.”

    So surely that’s meritocracy rather than democracy? You sound like a tory not a lib dem. And the problem with that theory, is money.

    One of the problems with our “democracy” is the sheer vastness of inequality in our society.

    Its a nice generalisation there that majority of the population are “average” and not capable of doing a decent job if they did work in Westminster. A great shame, as there are a lot of people in Britain who could have a lot to offer, and have simply never got the chance to develop those skills or persue those things because they don’t have financial backing behind them… well off parents… an education at Westminster School and Oxbridge…

    The people who usually succeed in British politics now are usually the best funded of British, not the best of British. Thats several issues. Political funding, education funding, social mobility…

    Anyway, “average income” doesn’t necessarily make people average themselves… just lacking in opportunity to express the things that are not so average about them.

  • Laurence, I agree that our MPs should be busy and that we, as their tax-paying bosses, should hold them to account, but at the same time I don’t think we should dictate how they spend their time.

    There is a simple logic to this, as however they do spend their time, they will be held to account the next time they are up for election – so they better had beware not to skimp on keeping us sweet.

    If writing a book is in support of their political philosophy and aids their personal campaigns (such as Hague’s political biographies do) then it can be considered part of the job, although still subsidiary to the needs of constituents and party.

    Anyway everybody needs a hobby they can be passionate about even if it’s just to keep their minds alert – we don’t want machine politicians representing us.

  • BTW I specifically didn’t want to imply you have a downer on spirituality as well as religion, merely that your outspoken opinions betray a deep yearning to counterbalance and provide meaning in what would an otherwise empty existence.

    We all have personal needs and our elected representatives shouldn’t be considered differently, which is why it is perfectly acceptable and advantageous that they find means of combining both the personal and professional in public life.

  • Don’t you?

    Hague has investigated the careers of individuals he might wish to be compared with and has gained no small amount of insight in the process, which is why he a more formidible and respected figure now than when he was leader of his party.

    I’m not sure that his individual constituents are able to see any difference, but the politics of the country has certainly profited from his personal resource.

    On the other hand, Jeffery Archer’s books tell a completely different tale.

  • Laurence, unless you are J K Rowling or Jeffrey Archer, you aint gonna make money out of writing a book.

  • Mike Falchikov 16th May '08 - 6:23pm

    Let’s not forget that Roy Jenkins wrote some pretty weighty tomes whilst being an
    MP and indeed for some of that time a
    Cabinet Minister.
    And remember also – STV in Scotland didn’t serve us all that well in the local elections. With a flexible 4-party system, we punched above our weight under FRTP.

  • Mike Falchikov 16th May '08 - 6:24pm

    Sorry for the typo – I meant FPTP of course.

  • “I’m still a bit concerned about the potential for internal party strife though.”

    Laurence, please can you remind us what the Cleggster’s reaction was when you said you quite liked David Cameron…
    he didn’t perchance intimate that you’ve fallen hook, line and sinker for the shiny PR bait?

  • What do you mean “Cameron ‘of course’ was in the aye lobby” when the most vocal opponents of it sit directly behind him? Aren’t you ‘of course’ justifying his actions according to your own biases?

    And that’s still no reason to wriggle – presentational values are fine and necessary in politics, whereas public relations are the antithesis of good politics as they are divorced from substance.

    If Cameron is in the slighest bit genuine, then he is genuinely wrong.

    And that is no qualification for leadership.

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