Opinion: Essence of Cleggism

Most good political speeches on policy are made up of mood music, initiatives and core ideas. By far the best section of Nick’s manifesto speech was the serious attempt to refine and define core beliefs on public services.

I am therefore emboldened to distil out of it the essence of Cleggism with the hope that if I am wrong I will be corrected and so further enlightened.

As I understand Nick’s thinking on the matter of public services, the state remains the funder and regulator of services but not the exclusive provider i.e.  it can give money to individuals to secure services or non-state organisations to deliver them.

This is self-evidently what nearly every state on this planet does already – though to a greater or lesser degree.

What Nick also says is that public services should be delivered equitably to each citizen with the clear implication that it must do more for those communities or individuals less capable of taking advantage of services available (hence the pupil premium etc).

Again there is widespread but not quite uiversal acceptance of this across the political spectrum.

Rhetoric aside the USP of Cleggism appears to be the insistence that central government is not particularly good at delivering these public service objectives and elected governments (aka the state) should make fewer decisions about how they are met.

More decisions about how services are delivered should be made by communities,locally elected bodies and the recipients of services (aka citizens).

This is what people seem to mean mean by the buzz word ‘empowerment’.

Cleggism therefore functions like a political version of Occam’s razor.

Why let national and/or local politicians decide how to deliver a service if that can perfectly well be decided at a local or individual or generally lower level ?

Cleggism retains the traditional belief that what services are funded and the level at which they are funded and quality control should be a matter of collective agreement either at national or local government level.

All of which looks like very much like classic Liberalism.

However, Liberals have claimed equally vigorously that making executive decisions at national, European and even international level is not actually ‘disempowerment’ but pooling powers to great effect and therefore under Cleggism it cannot be argued that it is always smart  to pass decision-making powers down the line.

Doesn’t it really depend on whether passing power down or up or whatever frustrates or fulfills the general will of society expressed through the democratic process – and depressingly interpreted by political parties in increasingly similar ways ?

When in the game of ‘pass the power’ the music stops we still need to make clear how we want a truly liberal society to differ from what other parties propose and what we have now.

John Pugh is Lib Dem MP for Southport.  He is the Lib Dem Shadow Treasury Spokesperson.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Peter Bancroft 15th Jan '08 - 3:36pm

    It’s an interesting post, but I can’t help but frown at the 2nd last paragraph:

    “Doesn’t it really depend on whether passing power down or up or whatever frustrates or fulfills the general will of society expressed through the democratic process ”

    I’m sure this hasn’t been properly thought through, but the implication is that the liberal approach to public services is that we’re in favour of whatever level of centralisation the public are willing to vote for.

    Are you sure?

    As pointed out above, the test is one of subsidiary/federalism/liberalism. If something can be done as well or better by a lower level of govt (or the individual), then it should be done by them.

  • Peter Welch 15th Jan '08 - 8:40pm

    Actually I think the Pugh test amounts to saying that any elected public authority that wants power to do something (and to remove this power from lower levels) should have it. (I don’t see what other test of the “general will” is offered.) I prefer my Cleggism undiluted!

  • Angus J Huck 16th Jan '08 - 1:50am

    I find it both amusing and perplexing to read a Lib Dem MP explain the doctrine of subsidiarity without actually using the word.

    Peter Bancroft writes: “As pointed out above, the test is one of subsidiary/federalism/liberalism”

    No it isn’t. “Subsidiarity” is a legal doctirne of civilian origin recognised and applied by the European Court of Justice and written into the Treaty of the European Union 1992. “Federalism” is a method of government and “liberalism” is a term so vague as to be useless. People misusing legal terminology makes me want to scream.

  • Peter Bancroft 16th Jan '08 - 8:27am

    Angus, I’m not sure of your specific objections?

    Subsidiarity did indeed get its original meaning as a made-up word within an EU context, but today’s it’s used more widely – it means that powers are at an “appropriate” level and only higher up when necessary.

    Federalism is the same, though is usually explicitly described as devolving power to the lowest possible level. As you point out, this is indeed usually a matter of governance, but the lowest possible level can often be one of the individual. Federalism’s really my “pet subject”, so surprised at being accused of not properly understanding the term!

    Liberalism obviously can mean many different things, but I would say that most sensible definitions would say that if someone can make their own choices with good outcomes that the state shouldn’t make those choices for them.

  • LiberalHammer 17th Jan '08 - 1:58pm

    Putting ‘ism’ after a politician’s name should be banned as it is a totally vacuous statement. Andy Mayer is absolutely spot on. Call it ‘liberalism’.

    This habit of confusing a pseudo-creed with a coherent philosophy started with Thatcher, and was grossly overstated then. But, once started, commentators couldn’t help themselves from describing Major’s actions as ‘Majorism’, and the same woolly thinking happened with Blair.

    Please no more ‘Cleggism’!

  • Subsidiarity is a great concept but for me it should always be subject to a pragmatic test – what works – rather than being simply a call to pass everything down to the lowest possible level. More often than not (and especially after years of centralising Tory/Labour rule) that does mean that powers should be passed to a lower level. Indeed I would like to see communities right down to village-size being given the power to run most local things for themselves.

    However, the “who does what?” question is and must remain a judgement call. Circumstances change and so does the public mood. What matters is that duplication is avoided. Failure to observe this vital principle is mainly why the referendum on a NE Assembly was lost in 2004 (rightly so in my opinion): opponents were able to describe it as “yet another layer of expensive bureaucracy” without any riposte from the Yes campaign.

    The EU too is guilty of failing to observe this basis rule. The European Parliament has just been debating the question of school uniforms (specifically banning the hijab in primary schools across the EU). Sure, it was defeated but that’s beside the point; it should never have been on the agenda in the first place. In fact I simply don’t believe the EU’s claim to support the principle of subsidiarity. When controversy about the Maastricht treaty blew up in John Major’s face it was suddenly ‘discovered’ that this was a basic principle as a way of placating the euro-sceptics. Read the text and you will indeed find the word, but only in passing not as a fundamental principle.

    If Clegg can develop a narrative on this that is consistent from parish council to Brussels, he will be halfway to Downing Street.

  • Michael Kelly 17th Jan '08 - 5:59pm

    “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as is escaping from old ones.”

    John Maynard Keynes

  • Bill le Breton 25th Feb '14 - 1:16pm

    I comment here in the hope that so doing might revive interest in this piece and introduce it to a new audience or one made wiser by close to four years of seeing Cleggism in action with willing partners.

    The questions it raises remain.

    What surprisingly does not remain is any connection anywhere on the net to the then new Leader’s speech to a special Manifesto conference in 2008.

    Perhaps the Leader’s office would tell us where it’s gone … and perhaps why it is no longer thought worthy of publication?

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