Nick’s triple whammy: a fairer society, a greener economy, a politics of trust

Nick Clegg delivered a heavily trailed major speech to the think-tank Demos today on the subject ‘Why I Am A Liberal’ – you can read it in full on the party website here.

The part that’s making the headlines is Nick’s warning to his fellow politicians not to impose panic measures in the wake of high-profile cases, such as the kidnap of Shannon Mathews or the killing of Baby P.

We know that it was the disaster politics response to the killing of Jamie Bulger that led to a massive upswing in the number of children in prison or prison-like secure accommodation. And we know it isn’t doing any good, it isn’t cutting crime, it’s just turning fragile children into damaged adults. Turning out a generation of career criminals. We need to protect against the worst, but we should not assume it. Crime must not end hope.”

However, the whole speech is worth reading – in particular, for Nick’s distillation of the contrasts between liberal and socialist concepts of progressive politics:

… a difference which has endured for the best part of a century and lives on in the modern Liberal Democrat and Labour parties.

Liberalism believes fairness, fulfilment and freedom can be best secured by giving real power directly to millions of citizens. Socialism believes that society can only be improved through relentless state activism, a belief driven by far greater pessimism about the ability of people to improve their own lives.

A liberal believes in the raucous, unpredictable capacity of people to take decisions about their own lives. A Socialist believes in the ordered, controlled capacity of the state to take the right decisions about other peoples’ lives.

A liberal believes a progressive society is distinguished by aspiration, creativity and non conformity. A Socialist believes a progressive society is characterised by enlightened top-down Government. …

Optimism in people. Dispersing power. These then are the key instincts of liberals.

He’s also clear-sighted, and objectively partisan, in his view of the Conservative party:

the Conservative tradition in British politics has oscillated wildly between a paternalistic view of the state – as sceptical as the Left of the capacity of people to take charge of their own lives – to an aggressive consumerism wedded to an unreformed model of politics at home and a brittle, slightly neurotic, nationalism abroad.

The modern Conservative Party seems to me to be beached between these two traditions – keen to take a softer, paternalistic attitude towards social issues whilst taking an increasingly sink-or-swim attitude towards those hit by the economic downturn and a doctrinaire hatred of the EU.

The great strength of British Conservativism has been its aversion to excessive theorising, and respect for simple pragmatism. But I’m not sure how even the most ingenious pragmatist will make sense of these new contradictions.

In the second half of the speech, Nick sets out his – and the Lib Dems’ – liberal response to the current political climate:

… what we also need to understand is this: the economic crisis rightly dominates the political debate today, but it also obscures deeper challenges which the country was already facing, and which are now further exacerbated by recession:

A social crisis. An ecological crisis. And a political crisis. …

The economic turmoil we face today is a direct consequence of a failure to adhere to simple liberal principles in the way we run our economy. And we continue to face the triple challenge of a society which is unfair, ecologically unsustainable and disfigured by distrust in politics.

These problems all stem from power being in the wrong hands, or in too few hands.
That’s what keeps people poor, it’s what prevents us from protecting the planet, and it’s what feeds the growing disillusionment towards politics.

So the solution must be sharing power, rather than hoarding it. Giving people a say over their own lives. Trusting people to make the right judgements for themselves, their families and their communities.

Finally, Nick set out his election stall:

At the next General Election the Labour Government will no doubt say that they should be re-elected to get us out of this mess even though they’re heavily responsible for it in the first place. The Conservatives will no doubt say it’s time for a change even though they have no intention of delivering real, lasting change.

I believe it will be the opportunity for Britain to do things differently. To create a fairer society. A greener economy. A politics of trust. Because at a time of fear, I believe people want hope.

There are many interesting messages here; I’ll pick out only two.

First, that Nick is very clearly, and quite deliberately, stressing the essential optimism of liberalism, and the policies of the Lib Dems. This is territory that David Cameron attempted to stake out as his own when he was first elected Tory leader, and piloting his ‘brand decontamination’ PR exercise. He’s largely dropped the pose since (think of the Tory emphasis on our ‘broken society’), and Nick surely senses the opportunity.

Yet optimism is a difficult brand to master, especially as the leader of the third party, in which role he’s often desperate for media attention – the media will normally want Nick to criticise Labour when interviewed, while his positive sound-bites will lie unused on the cutting-room floor.

And, secondly, that Nick senses the environment really does have the potential to re-establish itself as the party’s defining campaigning success, as hinted at in today’s well-placed story in The Independent, Clegg fights to claim limelight with environmental revolution.

As LDV has covered before, there is growing recognition that neither Labour nor the Tories will have the courage to push for effective green policies at the next election, leaving it to the Lib Dems to do so. As the environment is an arena in which the party already has an established brand, it will be much easier to push the message that anyone who actually wants to vote for a party that cares about the planet will have only one real choice at the next general election.

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  • I was at the speech, and it was very encouraging, particularly his defence of economic liberalism against Old Labour’s recent rivival of big state solutions for everything. Highlighting the difference between regulating market failure and replacing markets entirely is sometimes lost in the internal debate.

    I also couldn’t agree more with his comments about the need to hold unaccountable power to account, rights for parents in the workplace, and to restore trust in politicians by practicing what we preach.

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 15th Dec '08 - 8:12pm

    “… his defence of economic liberalism against Old Labour’s recent rivival of big state solutions for everything.”

    Haven’t the Lib Dems backed most of Labour’s recent “big state solutions”?

  • It’s a decent speech. But in these dire times, my instinct is that people will not take us seriously if we’re in a sulk about interventionism. What good is talk of better regulation and control of monopolies now?

  • “A Socialist believes in the …. capacity of the state to take …. decisions.”

    So that means we don’t? So we had better cut tax to zero, disband the army and police, etc, because that wretched State gets everything wrong?

    OK, I’m getting a bit silly here. But so is Nick. What he says about freedom and people is right and inspiring. But he ruins his own argument by grotesquely over-stating the case against the State.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Dec '08 - 1:34am

    Well, it doesn’t leave me feeling “ugh, I disagree with this”, but it does leave me feeling “there’s a lot of platitudes, but nothing really that grips me”.

    Clegg seems to be deliberately confusing the culture of target setting in public services with a wish for greater direct control over services not in public ownership. I don’t see that – New Labour may have been keen on the target mechanism in public services, but it showed no appetite for greater control of the private economy.

    So there are actually three issues here – how we run public services, what regulations we impose to ensure the sort of fair running of private services which Clegg endorses, and where the division between public and private services should be placed

    It seems to me the target setting culture of New Labour was really a desperate attempt to pull levers and make something happen rather than a sinister desire to control. It wasn’t red-blooded socialism, it was an attempt to placate tabloid newspaper “why oh why” articles by making a show of “doing something”. Of course we know that targets don’t work because inevitably people find it’s easier to meet the target in a way that wasn’t intended than it is to solve the deeper problem that led to the targets. They also don’t work because they require and inspire a bullying management style which makes people feel miserable, and miserable people don’t do a good job. There are things that could be said about how public services could be provided and run in a better way, but Clegg says nothing about that.

    Clegg’s comments about what he would do positively rather than what he opposes centre on the idea more rules and regulations to make the economy fairer and greener. But he says very little about what they would be. I rather feel they are just the sort of thing that would be condemned by Conservatives – and the sort of person who loves to call himself a “19th century liberal” – as “red tape”, “nanny state”, “political correctness gone mad”, “interference in enterprise making money” etc etc. If they are not to be condemned in this way, how are they going to be at all effective, how are they actually going to stop what has happened now with the financial crisis, and what will happen very shortly with various looming end-of-infinity crises?

    Clegg’s comments about what he would do positively rather than what he opposes centre on the idea more rules and regulations to make the economy fairer and greener. But he says very little about what they would be. I rather feel they are just the sort of thing that would be condemned by Conservatives – and the sort of person who loves to call himself a “19th century liberal” – as “red tape”, “nanny state”, “political correctness gone mad”, “interference in enterprise making money” etc etc. If they are not to be condemned in this way, how are they going to be at all effective, how are they actually going to stop what has happened now with the financial crisis, and what will happen very shortly with various looming end-of-infinity crises?

    Clegg goes on to talk about international regulation to save the environment. Can you see the tabloid headlines “Rule from Brussels”? We get plenty of such headlines over rules from Brussels which are meant to encourage the sort of free and fair trade Clegg says he wants, and Clegg is hinting at yet more rules and regulations to come.

    We are going to be “Giving people a say over their own lives, trusting people to make the right judgements for themselves, their families and their communities”.

    Meaning? More public meetings in draughty church halls where no-one but the usual suspects turn up? More of those comment and feedback sheets which are now de rigueur at public events? My feeling is that councils and government organisations are often desperate for more people to get involved, but run against the brick wall that most people can’t be arsed.

    Well, I can see why he sticks to the platitudes, but I think a braver and more forceful speech would be more honest about the specifics and about the likely opposition they will get.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Dec '08 - 1:39am

    By the way, I have asked, but don’t recall ever getting an answer, but as it’s something he’s fond of quoting, I’ll ask again: when Nick says “a child born today in the poorest neighbourhood in Sheffield will die on average fourteen years before a child born in the most affluent neighbourhood a few miles away” what does he mean? How does he know what the death rates for anyone born today will be? Does he actually mean “the average age of death in the poorest and most affluent neighbourhoods today differs by fourteen years”? That’s somewhat different, but at least we can get figures which tell us this sort of thing. They tell us about people who die when they live in these places, they don’t track people who were born in these places and find out when they die. Now, if we have a place where people tend to live when they are young and move away from when they get older, the people who are living there when they die will tend to be people who unfortunately died young. If we have a place where people tend to move to when they get old, the people who die when they are living there will tend to be old. This doesn’t necessarily imply an overall difference in life expectancies. Now, there is an overall difference in life expectancies between rich and poor, granted. But I do think if we are going to use statistics, they should stand up to serious analysis.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Dec '08 - 1:46am

    Sorry, replace duplicate paragraph 6 in my article above by:


    There are plans to spend more money on childcare for toddlers, extended parental leave, extra resources for the most deprived children, and big tax cuts for poor people. All jolly good, maybe, but how is it to be paid for? More tax on the rich and companies it seems, again, jolly good, maybe, but if it is going to raise enough to work, it’s going to hurt, and if it’s going to hurt, you can bet the companies and rich people are going to complain about it, and get their friends in the press and all those people who call themselves “19th century liberals” to complain about it as well, and decry it as stifling the talent of the rich who need to be well rewarded in order to become richer in order to benefit the rest of us etc. You know the lines, we’ve heard them often enough over recent years.


    The thing crashed when I was typing it, and the duplicate para got cut and pasted in from what I had saved by mistake instead of this.

  • “… there is no overarching conceptulaisation… “

  • …don’t we call out concept liberalism?

  • Take the UK’s car manufacturing facilities. They’re sound, productive plants, that are overwhelmingly foreign owned. In the global economic turmoil, they might be swept away without state assistance.

    In a time when the UK has to improve its trading position, it’s very difficult to argue that the manufacturing base should be left to be bashed about by the markets. Most likely Labour will give them some help, and we’ll quietly agree, but without any real enthusiasm.

    That cedes political ground to Labour, and creates a public image that the Liberal Democrats are timid about state intervention at a time when it is all the rage. We’re afraid to get our hands dirty.

    Even worse, it potentially allows Labour’s taste for authoritarianism and bureaucracy to infest bailed-out or nationalised industries. If serious intervention has to occur, I would prefer liberals to be involved at the start, rather than being sniffy about it.

    Take the railways. If Labour somehow finds the guts to renationalise them, some bright spark at the Home Office will realise that they can latch ID cards onto rail travel. It’ll make it easy for you to travel, keep you safe from terrorists, prevent ticket fraud, that sort of thing.

    If the Liberal Democrats were to object to the tacking on of ID cards, whilst grudgingly accepting the nationalisation, we’d be made to look like unconstructive whiners, nit-picking about civil liberities rather than caring about the good of the country.

    If we support nationalising the railways first, and present a sensible plan with safeguards and accountability, then we can prevent this from happening. Our plan will grab headlines like nothing else, and if Labour decides to go along the renationalisation route, the media and the public will instantly sniff out any ‘modifications’. We can put the boot into the government for caring more about wheeling out ID cards than having a decent rail network.

    It’s better to set a liberal tone for state intervention, than let authoritarian Labour colonise the issue and leave us mumbling ‘Yes, but…’.

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 16th Dec '08 - 4:17pm

    “We have also suffered from the top minds going into occupations like … politics …”


  • Asquith,
    The principle of subsidiarity is that decisions should be made closest to the people affected by the decision.

    International agreements on environmental controls are not decisions, but representative political units holding to account economic and industrial representatives and asserting the primacy of the people’s political power (though the terms of any agreement show exactly where that balance is struck).

    So no, other people don’t make good decisions for you, they only synthesise your earlier decisions in a representative capacity: you control your behaviour and choices.

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