Nick Clegg’s Letter from the Leader: “Of course the EU has to change”

No prizes for guessing which subject Nick Clegg tackles in his latest weekly letter to supporters: Europe. He rattles through the three positions: ‘calamitous outers’, ‘inconsequential renegotiators’ and ‘achievable reformers’. No prizes for guessing which he identifies with the Lib Dems. Over to Nick…

libdem letter from nick clegg

I’m writing this week’s Letter to you from Kirkwall in Orkney. Alistair Carmichael and Jim Wallace have been trying to persuade me to make the trip for a while and I’ve finally made it in order to join the celebrations of the centenary of Jo Grimond’s birth.

The big debate this week in British politics, which featured strongly in PMQs – where I was standing in for the PM (you can watch it here) – has obviously been about our future role in Europe. An issue on which Jo Grimond was a pioneer and leader.

What’s emerging in this debate is that there are three basic positions. The first is UKIP’s and an increasingly large number of Conservatives’ – they want to leave now. I am clear that would be a calamitous mistake for the country – it would make us poorer, make us less safe and jeopardise millions of jobs and billions of pounds of investment.

The second position is the Conservatives’ official position (at least for now) which amounts to saying to the rest of the EU that they should keep all the EU rules for themselves, but we’ll only abide by the bits we like. It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat it strategy. It might sound seductive, but it’s unlikely to work. Instead it will end up with either largely symbolic concessions from the other 26 member states “inconsequential” in Lord Lawson’s words – or demanding so much that the other EU countries will simply refuse.

The third position is the Liberal Democrats’ position. Of course the EU has to change. It is going to change because it’s in a state of challenge and flux and so needs reform. It must be more competitive, more open, leaner and less bureaucratic. All things Britain should lead from the front on and work constructively with our European partners to achieve.

That is a vision of Europe and Britain’s role in it that our party has long subscribed to. And importantly, it is actually achievable.

And in line with our previous manifesto, and the legislation we passed in 2011, when the EU rules change and new things are asked of the UK within the EU, the British people will have a say in a referendum. We are the first Government ever to give the British people such a guarantee in law.

So there are three positions: we can leave now; we can try and (almost certainly fail) to have our cake and eat it; or we can play our part at the heart of Europe promoting reform and guaranteeing a referendum when the EU rules change affecting Britain.

But as I argued in PMQs to the Tory backbenchers (who by the way seem to have developed an almost unhealthy interest in our Focus leaflets!), people are facing more pressing issues. And it is exactly those issues Liberal Democrats in this Coalition Government are currently taking a lead in tackling.

We won’t always get the attention or coverage we deserve for things we are doing, such as introducing Steve Webb’s single tier pension or the important work Norman Lamb has been talking about this week on Social Care. But we will keep delivering these things that make a real difference to people’s lives.

That is what we are in Government for: anchoring it in the centre ground and building a stronger economy and a fairer society. I’m sure Jo wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Best,

Nick

To get Nick’s letters by email simply sign up here.

You can catch up on all Nick’s letters to date here.

For those Lib Dem members wanting to receive Nick and the party’s emails, Mark Pack has produced a handy guide to help ensure you’re signed up: Why did I not get that email from the Liberal Democrats?

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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26 Comments

  • “And in line with our previous manifesto, and the legislation we passed in 2011, when the EU rules change and new things are asked of the UK within the EU, the British people will have a say in a referendum.”

    The manifesto commitment and the legislation are quite different, though.

    The manifesto commitment was for an in/out referendum if a fundamental change was proposed. The legislation requires a referendum to approve such a change.

    It would be a very bad idea for Clegg to fudge the issue by trying to give the impression that the legislation provides for an in/out referendum.

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th May '13 - 1:02pm

    It’s intereseting that Nick Clegg does not mention the benefits of the EU as a community built on co-operation and mutuality – he refers to the EU as a place where there has to be more competition and less red tape.

    I find it harder and harder to distinguish this view from a neo-liberal economic and managerial centrism – I thought we were Liberal Democrats – do we believe in community and the common good or not ?

  • Martin Lowe 19th May '13 - 2:46pm

    The time for weasel words about the EU had ended.

    If you believe the EU is (or can be) a good thing for Britain then now is the time to get out there and start saying so. There’s EU Parliament elections in 2014 and the British people deserve more than someone like Farage who only turns up to claim his expenses.

    And if the Party that created the Single European Market and promoted enlargement to the East wants to turn its back on these achievements, then the Liberal Democrats needs to start welcoming more of those Tories who’ve been marginalised by their very own Tea Party.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th May '13 - 4:59pm

    Yes but Helen, at the end of the day we are basically wild animals and will always compete for resources. We will always cooperate too, but the benevolent society where we become relaxed about stripping down our country and falling down the global league tables will never happen.

    We are also in financial difficulty, so we cannot afford to spend too much time helping others. We must get our own house in order first, like anybody else would do.

  • jenny barnes 19th May '13 - 5:53pm

    “we are basically wild animals and will always compete for resources.” this is a very Hobbesian view of the world; very individualistic / capitalist…. Most people basically want to live in communities and help each other; it’s just the sociopathic elite that make that difficult.

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th May '13 - 8:59pm

    @ Eddie Sammon: “we are basically wild animals and will always compete for resources. ”

    I’m assuming you mean this and are not being sarcastic.

    A very reductionist view and rather fatalistic – human beings have gone beyond the forest and savannah and we have developed ‘civilisation.’

    Neo-liberalism combined with neo-Darwinism is a truly destructive and unpleasant philosophy – it’s the triumph of despair over hope.

    I prefer hope and the potential of human beings to be more than their basic instincts.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th May '13 - 10:33pm

    I think we can and should become a more equal world, my point was to say I don’t think there is anything wrong with making the EU more competitive.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th May '13 - 6:16am

    Helen Tedcastle

    It’s interesting that Nick Clegg does not mention the benefits of the EU as a community built on co-operation and mutuality – he refers to the EU as a place where there has to be more competition and less red tape.

    Indeed. In putting it on those lines, he is signing up with the Tories and with UKIP in putting forward this image of the EU as some sort of inefficient semi-socialist organisation. When the elite say “more competitive, more open, leaner and less bureaucratic” we know what they mean “making it easier to sack people, getting rid of protection on workers’ rights, getting rid of protection of the environment” etc. Clegg here is joining in with the anti-EU people in putting up an image of the EU as something unpleasant, which we have to tolerate, rather than as something which is fundamentally a good thing. In making such a weak case for the EU, he is in fact joining in with those who want to pull out, he is essentially saying they are right.

    Given what we are facing now in terms of irrational and misleading anti-EU propaganda, which is getting its way because no-one much is putting the other side of things, we need to be pushing a hard the other way in order to correct it, and in order to gain a distinct position.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th May '13 - 6:29am

    Eddie Sammon

    Yes but Helen, at the end of the day we are basically wild animals and will always compete for resources

    Ask any employer why they don’t employ young people from the UK and what will they say? Often they will say it’s because they have “attitude problems”, they seem too full of themselves, unwilling to co-operate, too much of a “what’s in it for me?” way of thinking, acting like wild animals who don’t have a sense of control and respect …

    That is, this dog-eat-dog mentality which has been imposed on the top from our political elite is turning out young people who are of little use in the workforce. Most jobs are NOT about dog-eat-dog step-on-the-peoples-faces mad competition. Most jobs involve co-operation as part of a larger organisation, working with one’s fellows, accepting common goals.

    We are governed by people whose idea of work is over-influenced by the mentality of City financial trading, or the CEO who has the mentality of the psychopath. Most jobs are not of that sort, and our economy will not work if most people are brought up to value the sort of ideals and way of thinking that makes for success in that sort of jobs.

    So, in the aim of creating a more competitive work-oriented society, we are creating one full of people who are no good for the sort of work that actually exists. Ironically, the result is that employers end up importing people from eastern Europe, where the ways of thinking that came from state socialism are still strong and seem to lead to employees with a much better attitude for most of the jobs that are going.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th May '13 - 6:56am

    Matthew you can’t take my quotes out of context or treat things literally when I’m exaggerating to make a point. The very next line I say we will always cooperate too.

    I do not think my views have been thrust upon me by a ruling elite anymore than you have had views thrusted upon you. Rather I think views are mainly taken from personal experiences lived.

    I also think that the only people who think they can undertake some sort of Orwellian character changing mission of society are the far right and far left individuals such as yourself.

    Also, having quit three jobs in the space of twelve months in finance due to disagreements with the ethics and financial effectiveness of their short term business models, I fully understand the importance of doing work that actually needs doing; young as I may be.

  • jedibeeftrix 20th May '13 - 9:02am

    “or we can play our part at the heart of Europe promoting reform and guaranteeing a referendum when the EU rules change affecting Britain. ”

    what is the logical consequence of playing our part in order to reform the system from within?

    this is not an idle question, for when the bulk of the reform is directed at federalising the eurozone, in order that monetary union might survive, it is difficult to lead from the front without ceasing to be a sovereign nation state by that very act!

    show me a credible position that advances the single market into digital and services, without being embroiled in economic union, and i will back it gladly, but right now i have more faith in the renegotiators.

  • Peter Davies 20th May '13 - 3:23pm

    Right now, we cannot play our part at the heart of Europe because we are not at the heart of Europe.
    We cannot get to the heart of Europe because it is in a mess right now.
    We can’t help get it out of that mess because we are not at the heart of it.
    We are in the hands of others, notably Chancellor Merkel.
    I wouldn’t start from here.

  • Very nearly four years ago I wrote an op-ed for LDV arguing that the European Project had lost its way, that a radically different ‘Plan B’ was needed and that Lib Dems should take the lead in proposing a liberal alternative. I concluded that what was needed was some leadership on the issue.

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-wanted-a-liberal-plan-for-europe-15397.html

    Yet, as far as I can tell, all this time later nothing much has happen on this front; we are still no nearer to having an alternative proposal to put on the table even as life has got much worse for many Europeans, desperate for Greeks and Cypriots and pretty dire for the young almost everywhere. The Eurozone’s design flaws and the EU’s ineffectiveness in face of the financial crisis are plain for all to see as the powers that be rally round to save the big banks at the expense of the people.

    What do we actually get? Some vague hand-waving from Clegg accepting that things have to change but only offering, as Helen points out, neo-liberal nostrums and padded out with a little general-purpose waffle – “… lead from the front … work constructively with our European Partners” The best he can do is to try and scare the voters into line with unproven warnings of lost jobs. It’s hardly a positive message let alone leadership.

    It’s all very well to big up the promise of a referendum but that is firmly UKIP’s territory and on their question. Many will not have forgotten that one of Clegg’s first actions on becoming party leader was to break the promise for a referendum on the then new constitution on the twisty grounds that the Lisbon Treaty that it had morphed into was an entirely different animal.

    We should not be talking about Britain in or out; that is to frame the issue as countries set against each other. We should rather develop a position that represents a common European liberal perspective against rival views. Inter alia that would stress for instance the importance of the EU doing only those things it absolutely must do and no more and also adopting rules to prevent a race to the bottom in standards of any sort – especially in finance.

  • Michael Parsons 21st May '13 - 10:48am

    Hey-up! Man is the only animal to have domesticated himself. We survive by co-operation in our particular culture.
    Any individualistic red-in-tooth-and-claw man should try surviving a well-coordinated attack by a gang of thugs single-handed, or being a small country in the Southern European EU. The reason why “Europe” has become a nonsense is because it has become an opportunity for our swivel eyed M P’s to impose measures they could never get national agreement to, (and refuse those they could) to the destruction of our political culture. Disagree? try to dip your bread in delicious olive oil next time you visit a newly EU-regulated restaurant (if you like olive oil, that is, which as a good “European” you surely should).

  • @Matthew Huntbach

    As regards Eastern Europe attitudes here are completely the reverse of what you think they are. For a start there is no culture of public service at all (therefore anyone who enters poltics or forms an NGO is looked upon with the utmost suspicion), and social protection is so weak that anyone with a combination of problems (for example out of work and a drinking/gambling problem) is going to be looking for food in the bins by the end of the month. The reason is of course that a system based on the values you believe in was actually implemented here, causing the region to become poorer than the rest of Europe, and of course any system openly based on the zero-sum-game view of societal development, yet where the only way to get ahead is to cheat is going to kill off public service culture too and any sympathy with those worse off. So now it is every family for itself and you have to work hard to stay ahead, and bring your children up to work hard at school and in later life too – because it still really makes a big difference to lifestyle.
    Trust me, the Poles and others who are working hard in the UK are not doing it because they feel solidarity with their co-workers and bosses, but because they want to get on in life.

  • @jenny barnes – So form a community and live in it then. Or is what you really want the ability to compel others to be members?

    @Matthew H – by the way I agree that most jobs and most business are more about doing something practical or serving people than actively competing with some other firms, the existence of which it is possible to forget for long periods.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd May '13 - 12:25pm

    Richard S

    The reason is of course that a system based on the values you believe in was actually implemented here,

    Er, no, I do not believe in Leninism, I have made that very clear time and time again.

    Trust me, the Poles and others who are working hard in the UK are not doing it because they feel solidarity with their co-workers and bosses, but because they want to get on in life.

    I am not saying that Poles and others are working hard because they feel solidarity with their co-workers and bosses. I am not at all saying that Leninism works or worked according to its propaganda. Quite obviously it did not. The point I am making is to attack the trashy mentality of modern consumer culture, and the propaganda put out on its behalf about how it all works because the greed-is-good mentality encourages hard work. I believe that not only does it not work, it actually encourages in most people the opposite of the attitudes its propaganda says its encourages. In this way I see it as the mirror image of Leninism.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd May '13 - 12:39pm

    We may think of the people who REALLY control this country – those who sit on the executive boards of the big corporations – as the equivalent of The Party. In theory open to anyone, in practice carefully controlled, with the way to rise to the top being to make buddies, use them, and stab them in the back when the time comes. The Party pours out huge amounts of propaganda, in the shape of the newspapers and entertainment media it controls, propounding its theories and telling the proletariat how wonderful it all is, and if things are doing wrong it’s only because the politics of The Party has not yet been implemented in an extreme enough fashion, we have not yet reached the nirvana of the extreme free market, there are still bits of social democracy which need to be stamped out, counter-revolutionaries in what is left in public services who need to be denounced and got rid of.

    The Party puts out the image of the ideal person – the “entrepreneur” who is motivated by the ideal attitude of The Party, that greed is good, and success comes from being greedy and stepping on others to get to the top. All that is needed is to adopt the “I can do it, because I’m the best” attitude, and you will win. While the people are suspicious of this propaganda, because of its overwhelming presence in society they cannot help but be influenced by it in the way they conduct themselves. The reality is that it’s a cruel deception, because the only people who really can win in this way are those who are close to the leadership of The Party with all the privileges that brings. For the rest, the attitude it encourages achieves the opposite of what the propaganda says it will achieve, and drags the country down, well all of the country apart from those at the top of The Party and those a rank or two down who suck up to them, the system means they at least live very pleasant lives.

  • @Matthew,

    I know that you don’t self-identify as a Leninist, but is it not the case that you see any significant differences of wealth and income as inherently unjust? Any system based on those values will end up with the same economic stagnation and corruption, followed by dog-eat-dog values among the population in the later stages that have been observed in Eastern Europe.

    I don’t think the media is supportive of entrepreneurs at all, For every film showing a businessman in a positive light, there are a dozen showing a businessman breaking some law. Media heroes seem to be people as ordinary as possible, or rather people who owe their lot to random good fortune as much as possible and to the least extent possible to hard work and talent, such as reality show stars, Jordan etc.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd May '13 - 11:06am

    Richard S

    I know that you don’t self-identify as a Leninist, but is it not the case that you see any significant differences of wealth and income as inherently unjust?

    No.

    What you are suggesting about me is ridiculous. I am concerned about the huge and growing differences in wealth in this country, and the big differences this makes to life chances – it is a much more unequal country than the one I grew up in. Yet, when I air my views on this, you accuse me not just of being opposed to ANY difference in wealth and income, but also of supporting a Leninist style model of politics and governance.

    When I was growing up in the 1970s, I did feel that class divisions in this country though large were coming to an end, I felt I had been successful in pulling myself out from my own working class background, and such things soon would not be an issue. I remember arguing with people from other countries, particularly Americans, who supposed our country was very class-bound, saying you them that no, I did not think it was, in fact I felt it was a country of equal opportunities. How very wrong I was. Sadly, class differences in this country have grown and grown since then. Those at the bottom, as I was when I was a child, have much less chance of getting anywhere than I did. Yet when I point this out, you accuse me of wanting this country to be run as a one-party state by an authoritarian top-down party which opposed freedom of discussion. Because that IS what you were saying about me when you wrote:

    The reason is of course that a system based on the values you believe in was actually implemented here,

    Sorry, but I think there is a wider variety of positions than you are willing to admit. That is, I hold it is possible to be critical of extreme market theory without being a Leninist.

  • @Matthew Huntabach, – The top rate of tax in the UK is 45 percent. At what point would we not have an extreme market?

    Also I have given this example before. Among ethnically Chinese kids living in the UK the pass rate for 5 GCSEs is 78 percent, and 70 percent among those on free school meals – both much higher than for the rest of the population.
    It depends how you define class – if you define it as about money then the Chinese prove that this is not really the determining factor for success in the next generation. If class is about culture (by which criteria even the Chinese families on free-school meals appear to be middle class) then I agree with you but would then say that opportunities are there for everyone but it is not my problem that other people’s culture prevents them from taking advantage of them.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th May '13 - 2:08am

    Richard S

    Also I have given this example before. Among ethnically Chinese kids living in the UK the pass rate for 5 GCSEs is 78 percent, and 70 percent among those on free school meals – both much higher than for the rest of the population.

    Yes, and so?

    I grew up on free school meals, and achieved top grade A-levels. So if what you were saying was true, I would be a counter-example to my own argument.

    At any rate, you seem to live in your own narrow world, in which you believe anyone who doesn’t hold to your own views on economics is a 100% Commie. There’s no more point in arguing with people like you than there is in arguing with Commies (or their modern equivalent, Trots). Both sets live in their own ideological little worlds.

  • @Matthew, you are not a counter-example to your argument because, as I understand it, you are saying that the achievements you made at the time you made them were possible then but are no longer possible now. The counter example would be data that says opportunities are still available, such as Chinese kids getting good GCSE pass rates seemingly regardless of parental income. Life is about choices, and it is true that kids from certain backgrounds are more or less likely to make the choice to take advantage of their opportunites, but that doesn’t mean people who do take advantage of their chacnes are somehow stopping others, because life isn’t a zero-sum game.

    In any case, I am not sure that I want to reduce tax and marginal benefit withdrawal rates (which can get really high) as much as you would like to raise them, but then neither of us are posting hard numbers – but if you consider an economy with a 45 percent top rate of tax to be led by “extreme” market values then I think others are entitled to assume you would seek to dictate major changes in how things operate. I know, on the other hand that you don’t have the stomach or desire to lock people into the country so have to operate within the constraints of practicality.

  • Helen Dudden 2nd Jun '13 - 3:33pm

    I was at a meeting just a few weeks ago on the subject of the EU in London. There were many Conservative supporters, and it was clear that they were not wishing to stay in the EU, in the majority.

    The meeting was attended by Dr. Bodo Herzog, Professor of Economics and he tried to get some interest on the reasons why we should stay in. I think that I was the only person in the room to freely state, I wished things to improve and move on.

    I believe in the reasons for the EU, I also support the need for Turkey to join as soon as they meet the criteria. It is only by working together will be solve the problems, and there are problems.

    UKIP will only provide what is wished to hear, is that the way to govern? Austerity never was the answer.

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