Politics between the extremes – some highlights

Nick Clegg’s account of the coalition and its aftermath is an insightful and in many places startlingly frank account. This is not a complete review, though do buy and read the book for yourself, but I’ll pick up a few of the issues raised.


Nick devotes a chapter to “the plumage of power” – looking at how a government anchored in the centre ground by Liberal Democrats ended up appearing from the outside merely to be run by unusually moderate Conservatives. One aspect of this was being seen with the trappings of power. The value was understood all along by Conservatives – because they live for this sort of thing. Speaking at the door of number 10, etc. There’s a fascinating contrast between the coalition DPM who had a veto on government policy but no real visible trappings – and, say, the US Vice President who is well adorned with plumage, but whose powers are ‘not worth a bucket of warm spit’.

The lesson may seem obvious with hindsight – demand the pomp commensurate with the role. I guess we thought it pompous and silly. And no doubt had Nick demanded the use of the Number 10 front door, or another office with a grand entrance, for the TV cameras, the opposition would have said that that was all he was in it for.

Another chapter examines continental experiences with coalition from the point of view of the smaller party. The Dutch, we are told have a phrase: Burgemeester in Oorlog – to be a mayor in wartime – under the Nazi occupation, Dutch mayors could either resign and be replaced by a stooge or stay and become compromised. Neither choice was a vote winner. (That is not to cast the other parties as Nazis – but the dilemma, of having to choose between symbolic purity and the the consequences of your actions, will upset many whichever way you go.) This chapter then analyses the what happened and why on the effect of the coalition on the party’s electoral support. There are lessons to be learned with hindsight but there are also factors that were outside our control. Labour’s choice to target Lib Dem voters with much greater effort than they did Conservatives was one factor. Another was the unexpected effect of the SNP driving moderate English voters towards the Conservatives for fear of a government at the mercy of special pleading for Scotland.

A third chapter looks at the EU referendum, with some interesting insights into the differences in what Europe means to its founders, to the southern and eastern additions, and to the UK. We had a referendum because of a failure of Conservative Party management, arising in turn from a war between the two halves of the Conservative brain: the home, hearth, heritage, nuclear family and King James Bible on the one hand, and the innovative free market capitalists, skeptical of government ability to ‘buck the market’ on the other.

The actions of generations of Conservatives have exploded the myth that Britain retains any meaningful economic sovereignty of its own. Yet this is the same party that goes beserk if Britain is outvoted in the EU Council of Ministers on technical amendments to the third widget directive. They have rubbed our noses in the idea that we have no alternative to being open to the world economically, while at the same time recoiling from the implications of that very openness.

The referendum debate is characterised as one that pitted the politics of reason, imperfection and compromise against those of anger, utopianism and grievance. This is also a larger theme of the book, looking at the lessons and challenges for liberal, plural and internationalist politics in the age of Trump, Corbyn and having “had enough of experts”. Nick talks about the need for a more emotionally powerful message and calls on us to assert our positive patriotism in contrast to the patriotism of fear and isolation of the populists.

It’s good advice, though we are in danger of telling the angry that they’re not being reasonable, and telling those who have reasoned from false premises (decades of lies about the EU) that they are just being angry. That wouldn’t work.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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  • I was fascinated by the part where he said he’d resign within a year (in 2012) if no Lib Dem recovery was evident – though first he wanted to apologise for fees.

    And then he stated that things were getting better – people were meeting his eyes again in the street.

    How I wish I had worn sun-glasses.

  • Bill le Breton 11th Oct '16 - 2:18pm

    I wonder if he ever read ALDC’s Life in the Balance – a manual on what to do and what not to do in these situations – 40 years of Lib Dem experience distilled?

  • Laurence Cox 11th Oct '16 - 5:42pm

    @Bill Le Breton

    Well said. I think Paddy was the last Party leader who took ALDC seriously and even then he wasn’t above telling porkies to the activist members. I was at the ALDC conference (was it in Birmingham?) in the mid-90s when he denied that he had been stitching up a deal with Blair. I think that it was Donnachadh McCarthy who had found out what was going on and was trying to make it public.

  • Bernard Salmon 11th Oct '16 - 9:12pm

    I’m not going to comment on the bulk of the article, other than to say that at best Nick Clegg showed tremendous naivety during his time in government and never really understood the politics of being part of a coalition.
    But I’m struck by your final paragraph in which you talk of the dangers of telling the angry they’re not being reasonable and the false reasoners they’re angry. I think the angry voters, who form the basis of Trump’s support in the US, are probably currently beyond the reach of a liberal message about toleration and openness. But the false reasoners can potentially be reached. It won’t be easy (and from a party point of view the ‘correct reasoners’ who voted Remain currently provide a more fertile pool of potential support) but there is no reason in principle why they might not eventually become receptive to a liberal message, especially if we can demonstrate how they were systematically deceived by the Leavers.

  • paul barker 11th Oct '16 - 9:48pm

    Its amazing how many people in the Party could have done a much better job than Nick Clegg – what a wealth of talent we have.

  • Bernard Salmon 11th Oct '16 - 10:12pm

    @ Paul Barker
    I don’t think that’s fair. I have no doubt that had someone else been in charge we wouldn’t have made the same mistakes – we’d have made different ones. But we do need to understand where we went wrong and learn accordingly. Everyone knows that Nick Clegg faced difficult choices, both in terms of going into government and what he did while he was there, but that doesn’t mean he’s immune from criticism.
    And I think Bill le Breton raises a good point in that I think one of the valid criticisms that can be made of Clegg is that he never really understood the culture of the party, or the expertise available within it. As a result, he perhaps relied too heavily on a fairly narrow coterie of advisers, who may have been great policy wonks but weren’t as experienced in campaigning and communicating a clear political message.

  • Katharine Pindar 11th Oct '16 - 10:32pm

    I love the idea that the ‘micro-managers’ of our Tory Government are going to have to cope with a lot of ‘third widget directives’ all by themselves now.

  • Denis Mollison 12th Oct '16 - 8:22am

    The discussion of appearances, and how they undermined us in coalition, are interesting.

    But the key problem was matters of substance: the economy, health and education, where we went along with policies we did not believe in, and that in the case of the health service at least had not been in either manifesto. When I say we did not believe in them, perhaps Clegg and his circle did, alas.

  • @Paul Barker
    I’m not saying I would have done a better job. But then again, I didn’t stand for party leader and promise to treble the number of seats, and then lose over 90% of them.

  • Steve Trevethan 13th Oct '16 - 7:37am

    How and why did we get from being a/the party of perception and principal over Iraq War 2 to a party offering support to those who have attacked two sovereign states on “evidence” which does not pass the fundamental and precious “beyond all reasonable doubt” test ?
    How is it that since becoming a “party of power, not protest”, we have become so very much weaker?

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