Opinion on Nick Clegg’s first anniversary: Stephen Tall – a work in progress

Clegg’s first year: Clegg on Clegg | Tall on Clegg | Land on Clegg | Littlewood on Clegg | Clegg on YouTube

It’s a cliché that the leader of Her Majesty’s official opposition has the most difficult job in British politics; unusually the cliché is wrong. For sure, David Cameron’s in an unenviable position (and not just because he’s a Tory); utterly powerless, the only weapons he has in his artillery are words. But at least those words are listened to; debated and disagreed with; quoted and used against him. They are not ignored.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the third largest party in the UK, the Liberal Democrats, does not (yet) enjoy the frustration of being the Leader of the Opposition. Inbetween elections when newspapers and broadcasters conspire to pretend that Britain has only two political parties, Lib Dem leaders must battle for every mili-second of publicity. They can look forward to endless dissection of their most minor gaffes; and learn to realise that their serious speeches are judged too dull by meedja execs in thrall to the myth that citizens just can’t be arsed to pay attention to anything that smacks of serious.

So exactly how do we judge the success (or otherwise) of Nick Clegg, who today begins his second year as our leader?

To be honest, I think it’s pretty easy. Nick Clegg as leader is exactly what the vast majority of us – discounting those few who thought he was the Lib Dem Messiah, and those few for whom Nick can do no right – thought he would be: he’s a work in progress.

Nick has immense intellectual strength and curiosity. He’s actually a policy wonk, which many might regard as a handicap for a political leader, who is often expected to remain at arms-length from the detail (a la Blair). I find Nick’s hunger for new ideas one of his most endearing qualities. If either Gordon Brown or David Cameron had even half Nick’s questing drive, political debate in this country would be so much more mature than it is.

But, as so often, there is a flip-side to Nick’s boyish questioning: his habit of ‘thinking out loud’ sometimes results in fuzzy communication, most notably when he appeared to suggest that the “vast bulk” of the party’s £20 billion public spending savings would be ear-marked for tax cuts. Nick’s chief of staff Danny Alexander was hastily despatched to these very pages to try and ventriloquise the party out of Nick’s mis-speaking; but the damage was done, and the confusion has been hard to un-do.

Which is a shame, really, because just a month later, Nick managed to encapsulate the party’s tax proposals in 10 succinct sentences, even earning praise from often trenchant critics for the popular clarity and foresight of his call. As I suggested in an open letter to Nick here the morning after his election victory: “Be disciplined: you may despise yourself for repeating yourself – but realise that a constant, truthful message rammed home is vital to establishing the party as a credible contender.” (This advice doesn’t apply solely to Nick, of course; it’s true of all of us involved in promoting the party at any level).

Mind you, I think the party should learn to be much more relaxed about Nick’s other so-called ‘gaffes’: would he repeat his off-the-cuff remark to Piers Morgan that he had slept with “a lot less” than 30 women? I doubt it: “none of your business” would have been by far the better (and more boring) response. Should we care? I doubt it even less: only seedy, sleazy hacks give a toss (so to speak). As for his spontaneous confession to being an atheist, well I’m unsure since when the word ‘gaffe’ became synonymous with ‘honest’: I don’t believe for a moment that any Christian or deity would have preferred it if Nick had feigned faith on the grounds of political expediency.

Nick faces the Catch-22 all his predecessors have confronted: don’t put a foot wrong, and you’re labelled ‘Mr Cellophane’; take a few risks, and you get a reputation for being gaffe-prone. In fact, Nick has fared no worse than either Paddy or Charles in their respective first years, and considerably better than Ming.

I think Nick can be half-acquitted of two specific charges levelled against him by his critics.

First, the cock-up over the party’s Lisbon Treaty tactics. That the Lib Dems, of all parties, ended up being split on the issue of Europe is a bizarre and remarkable achievement; the leadership’s failure to allow its MPs a free vote on the rights and wrongs of a referendum was a masterclass in cutting off our No’s to spite our face. Quite simply, Nick made the wrong call. It was, by the way, exactly the same wrong call that Chris Huhne would have made if he’d been leader – we know this because Nick and Chris were both united in their answers on this point at the leadership election hustings.

Secondly, the party’s dip in the opinion polls. It’s been disappointing, to be sure, that the Lib Dems have failed to benefit, indeed appear to have suffered a little, from the current economic crisis, despite being the only political party to have correctly predicted the problems that were brewing, and despite being the only political party to propose solutions that were eventually adopted by a reluctant Labour Government. But the harsh truth is – as we’re discovering – that opposition parties rarely get rewarded for pointing out in advance what the Government should do, especially when the Government decides (albeit belatedly) to take (some of) our advice. Unfair? ‘Fraid so. Nick’s fault? Absolutely not.

Little could Nick have known when he took office a year ago quite what was going to hit him as leader – a European treaty revolt, five Parliamentary by-elections, the resignation of David Davis, a financial 9/11. Truth be told, he’s been buffeted more than any of us would like, Nick included. But the bigger truth is this: Nick is at least as ambitious, confident, intelligent, articulate and focused as he was when this party first elected him. And he now has a year’s experience under his belt.

I started by arguing that Nick’s leadership was a ‘work in progress’. Let me close by saying I think that’s a cause for real excitement. As the old Lib Dem slogan goes, ‘A lot done, a lot still to do’.

* Stephen Tall is Editor-at-Large of Lib Dem Voice.

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  • “It was, by the way, exactly the same wrong call that Chris Huhne would have made if he’d been leader – we know this because Nick and Chris were both united in their answers on this point at the leadership election hustings.”

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe this.

    It was the whipped abstention policy that was the real nonsense, and that emerged only at the last minute – just a few days before the vote Clegg panicked in an interview and said the party would vote with the government, against a referendum.

    What exactly are you claiming Huhne said at the hustings?

  • Any dip in the poll rating of the party in third place should be considered as a restrengthening of their/our core.

    We are gradually growing our core, but we need do more to hold on to the free spirits and curmudgeons too.

  • Oh come on James. Nick saying personally that he doesn’t believe in God, but clarifying that as his wife does and therefore it is important to her that the children are raised as Catholics is not that inconsistent. It’s about the give and take of a marriage. Are you suggesting that Nick should just ignore Miriam’s far stronger religious convictions?

  • When I saw the title, I first thought that Stephen Tall was the work in progress. 😀

  • Clegg’s unguarded openness over those two traditional favorites of polite dinner-party conversation (sex and religion) is really rather endearing and shows he’s just a big softie at heart.

    But that’s not the face we want our politicians to show in public – we want them to recognise when they’re being buttered up or someone is out to get them.

    He should lap up the flattery, but be steadfast in his reserve and turn the tables if necessary.

    Piers must be a bigger shagger anyway, he’s such a letch.

  • Darrell,
    you’re not so far gone are you?

  • James – sorry a misunderstanding. I will clarify.

    I don’t feel how they raise their children is anyone else’s business. It’s just that most of the criticism I read about his “atheism” comment was around him saying that his children were being raised as Catholics because of Miriam. That is why I mentioned it. Quite a few people at the time felt he shouldn’t let his children be raised religiously if he himself didn’t approve. I thought that was what you were referring to.

    I accept your comment about the apologies though. Although I have to say that I was astonished at how angry some people were when he admitted he didn’t believe in God. I thought being an atheist was fairly mainstream and wouldn’t cause any reaction these days (writing as someone who is atheist but with plenty of religious friends who don’t care if their friends don’t have one) but I realised I was wrong when I saw the response he got.

  • I think he has actually done a decent job. A narrative of the last year imposed by the other parties (reiterated by the Tory newspaper reviewer on Sky News last night) and picked up the media is that it’s two party politics again; the Liberal Democrats are an irrelevance and will be squeezed come a General Election. Nick has done very well in continuing make the Liberal Democrats relevant so that the squeeze myth has pretty much been exposed for what it is (even allowing for very some dodgy polling methods). I am pretty sure the Liberal Democrats would take 19% going into a General Election – wouldn’t you?

  • Liam Pennington 18th Dec '08 - 2:16pm

    He’s failed.

    We need a leadership contest now. Get Cable or Huhne in now for the love of our Party.

  • Iain Coleman 18th Dec '08 - 2:37pm

    If Nick hadn’t talked about why his kids go to a Catholic school, you can be sure some hack would have come out with “Clegg says he’s an atheist, but look! He sends his kids to a religious school! What a hypocrite!”, no doubt leading to all sorts of unnecessry drama in the media. It was a good idea to get his clarification in first.

  • Stephen, a good piece in general. On your last point about not getting credit for predicting the housing crash. Is not the problem that most people are not aware of this? I mean, those who pay most attention to the broadsheets and read LDV might be (as might other parties’ acivitists) but the general public have no idea.
    As you pointed out at the beginning, we get limited publicity, so we have to repeat what we stand for loudly and often. We could start by making sure that every Focus delivered in the next year shows Vince’s quotes predicting the housing crash and recession. Then a few more people might be giving us the credit we deserve…

  • Different Duncan 18th Dec '08 - 3:20pm

    Catholicism can be illiberal, so liberals must be illiberal towards Catholics.


  • Thankfully, this is not a comments section on religion. For what it is worth, I think that Catholicism is prefectly compatible and some of the best liberals have also been Catholic. Has anyone else read Shirley’s God and Caesar? Worth a read.

  • Charles Kennedy, RFK, JFK etc etc. Taking one example in order to poor scorn on Shirley hardly negates the point either. There have been illiberal Atheists, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus and Mormons. There have been liberal people who associated with each religion too.

  • I wouldn’t put it down to his Catholicism, though. Anyway, back to Nick Clegg’s first year as leader…

  • Different Duncan 18th Dec '08 - 4:24pm

    Yes. Mr Clegg.

    My main fear was that moving the Lib Dems from tax-raisers to tax-cutters would lose many of the voters it took decades to build up. Fortunately I don’t think this has happened, which is nice.

    What I fear going forward is that our promise to cut £20bn aint fully costed yet, and it has to go a long long way in terms of both tax cuts and govt spending.

    The opposition’s usual “well they can say whatever they like they are never going to get into power” is actually starting to have some semblance of truth about it.

    Time will tell I guess.

  • Laurence,
    you have a very conservative view of what catholicism is, so it’s no surprise you describe it as illiberal!

    To take a metaphor literally, catholicism is the archetypal broad church and its scripture is a literal metaphor. If you were more open-minded towards them, I’m pretty sure you’d see more liberalism in them.

    As far as Clegg’s first year goes it hasn’t been stunning, but it has been solid. He’s consolidated his position and we’ve consolidated ours, so the next job is to build on these foundations and step everything up another level.

    To call it a failure is just plain silly – there’s no such thing as failure, only deferred success!

  • CK didn’t go to a “faith” school, did he? Very unusual for a Roman Catholic in Scotland.

  • Those members of the Catholic Church who are “moderate” are still paying their dues & generally encouraging the leadership in its reactionary behaviour. They are the ones who make the activities of “fundamentalists” possible in the first place.

    If they don’t agree with the Pope’s stance, why not leave the church altogether? It isn’t hard.

    They are obviously having no effect on liberalising it, so you can’t use that defence. If I joined the BNP & started voting for it tomorrow, in an attempt to soften its line, I would get nowhere & would merely provide soft support for Griffin et al.

  • This is why I was a fervent critic of Clegg’s stance & still am. Who speaks for the ones who don’t want “faith” to have an unchallenged position, for “leaders” to dictate to the government & society, & for “respect” to be shown to them despite there being no good reason for so doing?

    Seemingly no party today.

  • Questioning that somebody holds a belief is not the same thing as questioning why they hold it and how it applies in daily life.

    The only ‘Faithless’ I’m a fan of is the band, and I’m pretty sure a lot of agnostics and atheists are also pretty spiritual.

  • “there is a fundamental conflict between liberalism and Catholicism”

    maybe or maybe not, but definitely not between democratic liberalism and Catholicism: secular is not atheist.

    Sorry Laurence, your word is not gospel.

    Anyway, how your kids turn out is more important than how you raise them – look at yourself!

  • David Allen 18th Dec '08 - 7:01pm

    “If the (prompted) answer was “my wife is a Catholic and under the terms of our marriage I agreed to raise my children as Catholic”, no-one … would have lifted an eyelid.”

    Well, speaking as an unbeliever who faced a similar issue when I married a (C of E) Christian, a long time ago – I would certainly have raised an eyelid!

    It wasn’t easy. My wife would have found it very difficult to bring up children without teaching her religion. I would have found it equally difficult to consent to indoctrination.

    What we agreed (and I doubt the Catholics would have allowed this) was to take our children to church etc, but also, to make it clear that not everybody believed in it, that I didn’t believe in it, and that they should expect to gradually make up their own minds as they grew up. (We now have two atheist and one Christian grown-up children by the way!)

    As far as I’m concerned, Clegg had plenty to clarify, and on the whole, he did well to do so. He said just one thing that struck too fawning a note, about not being “an active believer”. (As if you could somehow be a passive one!)

    I would certainly have wanted to speak, as Clegg did, of my respect for Christian culture. Now I dare say a true believer, like James, thinks that being a “cultural Christian”, like Dawkins, is very much second-best. But I don’t think that is a good enough reason to look down on Clegg.

  • “Fine, so they can raise them as Nazis, no problem.”

    I’m sorry, did you just equate Catholicism with Nazism?

  • Laurence, the natural final outcome of your point about Catholicism is that it is incompatible with liberalism (? Lib Demmery?) If you look at the, no doubt, several thousand Catholics who belong to the party, and you also note many liberal views expressed by Catholics, you cannot tar them all with your “illiberal” tag.

    I think it would be very easy for you to pick any religious group – Christian or other – and because of the aspect of faith often linked to immutable principle, you could deem them illiberal. Most LDs, and the many religious people who think we are the party with the best principles and political ideas, would be absolutely appalled. Many people of faith question aspects of their religion, and jolly good too – let’s be as tolerant of them as they often are of us!

  • Just reading this thread for the first time I am amazed at the proportion given up to the issue of Nick’s religion or lack of same. There are far more important points to be made – including the one about our policy agreed at conference to seek some £20bn savings in public expenditure – as Different Duncan has said above. Surely Nick/Vince must now say that the advent of a recession (likely to be both long and deep) since our conference means that our aspirations to reduce overall public expenditure can only be long term and in particular after the recession has been weathered.

    As to religion I advise Laurence Boyce to go to Northern Ireland and find out what our colleagues in the Alliance Party (both Catholic and Protestant) went through to uphold liberal values throughout the bombs and the bullets of the 1970s and 1980s. Let him then come back and say that catholicism is incompatible with liberalism.

  • Lawrence, you claim “it is not for me to explain so-called liberal Catholics” by asserting that Catholicism is what the Pope says it is.

    The reactionary doctrinal tradition of the Papacy is opposed to liberalism, but that doesn’t mean that the behaviour of ordinary Catholics is.

    I regard it as essentially liberal to judge people on their actions and not on their avowed beliefs; even more so, many Catholics don’t even avow orthodox belief.

    I think that for many liberal Catholics, their Catholicism is about an ethnic/cultural identity, rather than being a belief system per se. They just ignore the papacy and turn up to church for the smells and bells. I think it’s very comparable to non-believing Jews; they’re ethnically Catholic rather than religiously.

    For those of us who have carefully thought through our religious beliefs it’s hard to deal with someone who thinks that religion is so unimportant that they can believe anything for cultural/family/ethnic reasons. It’s like landing on the doorstep to be told “we never vote, they’re all the same”. But there are people like that.

  • LB wrote:

    “Agreed. Let’s get ourselves into so much debt that we can never conceivably pay it off.”

    Some people do just that. They borrow from every conceivable source, make themselves bankrupt, wait two years, then repeat the cycle.

    I have come come the conclusion that people who take out personal loans are mad. They think they are getting something for nothing, but in reality they are paying extortionate rates of interest. Gambling is cheaper.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Dec '08 - 9:30pm

    Catholicism is in fact what the Pope says it is, and he gets his orders from the big man in the sky. That’s the deal.

    Actually, no. See:




    for corretions of this common misbelief.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Dec '08 - 10:12pm
  • Hywel Morgan 21st Dec '08 - 11:42pm

    As one priest famously put it:

    “Anyway, don’t mind what the church thinks, it used to think the earth was flat. It’s like, you know, sometimes the Pope says things he doesn’t really mean, you know? We all get things wrong, even the Pope.”

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Dec '08 - 6:39pm

    As the references I’ve given say, it is not the position of the Roman Catholic Church that everything the Pope says is correct and true Church teaching that cannot be questioned. Nor is it the position of the Roman Catholic Church that the Pope can arbitrarily make doctrines on a whim.

    We would not make incorrect and offensive assertions about Islam, so why is it considered acceptable in Liberal Democrat circles to make incorrect and offensive assertions about Roman Catholicism?

  • Matthew, remind me why Professor Hans Küng was booted out of the Church?

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