Exclusive: Nick Clegg Interview – Want a Liberal, Democratic Britain?

Interview first published March 2010 10 November 2010

Nick Clegg talks to Mari Shibata about faith schools, Afghanistan, the economy and student politics

Nick Clegg, a graduate in Social Anthropology from Robinson College, Cambridge University, has been the leader of the Liberal Democrats since 2007 and is currently running for Prime Minister in the next general election. He has been a member in Parliament since 2005 as MP for Sheffield Hallam, during which he was promoted by the leader Charles Kennedy as the party’s spokesperson for Europe, as deputy Foreign Affairs Spokesperson for Menzies Campbell, followed by Home Affairs spokesperson in 2006. His early political career was as a Liberal Democrat Euro-candidate for the East Midlands in 1998 and worked extensively as an MEP until 2004.

On Thursday 26th February the Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats hosted a Q&A session at Trinity Hall with Nick Clegg. He answered a variety of questions and tackled topics on the right to education, the delay of scrapping university tuition fees, political reform in Westminster, a new Green economy, gender equality, Islamaphobia and on Britain joining the Euro at a later stage. TCS had a few minutes to chat to him about other issues that underpin his general election campaign after the event.

Why should faith schools have to teach children that homosexuality is “normal and harmless”, when the reason why faith schools exist in the first place is so that the parents have the choice to the kind of teaching to which they want their children to be exposed?

Faith schools are paid by the taxpayer. They are part of an education system we provide as a right, as part of the infrastructure in the fabric our society. I so happened to be not a man of faith but actually a great supporter of faith schools, because I think the best faith schools – and I know a lot of brilliant faith schools – are some of the most enlightened, some of the most effective, some of the most emancipating schools in the school system I know.

But just because they are faith schools does not mean that they can suddenly occupy big difference – moral or ethical or educational – they are still part of the family of schools which make up our education system. Homophobic bullying is a real, real problem; no one should underestimate this. There are young people who commit suicide because they feel they were teased in the playground and the teachers didn’t help them. Homophobic violence – as much as Islamaphobic violence, anti-Semitic and other forms of violence – is going up very, very sharply.

I am a dad of two young children – actually my wife happens to be a strident Catholic, she’s Spanish so it’s kind of expected – actually go to very good faith schools and I can see that those early years, how they are treated by their teacher, what they are taught by their teacher, the values that are taught by their teachers is so important in creating a basic bedrock of values we all share. And one of the fundamental values that we as a community are entitled to expect from all schools is utter intolerance of any form of discrimination or prejudice whatsoever; on race, on religion, on gender, on sexuality.

That’s why I make no apologies; I didn’t say that an hour needs to be set aside every Tuesday to explain what gay couples get up to. What I said was much more pragmatic, which was that if any opportunity arises, which it always does, teachers should answer questions about homosexuality in an unprejudiced, non-discriminatory way and explain that it is normal and that it is part of a rich community, a diverse one that it is. And I make no apology in saying to faith schools that I think that they should have policies dealing with bullying just like any other school, and treat sexuality in a non-controversial, non-discriminatory manner if it comes up in the classroom.”

I would like to move onto Afghanistan. How do you hope to deal with this problem? How much more commitment – both politically and financially – will you be willing to invest if you were to become Prime Minister?

Well, it’s not unlimited, that’s the first thing. We’ve been there for eight years now and the British people are becoming increasingly bewildered about why we have been there for so long that they can’t really see an end, and I think we are now, if you like, entering the beginning of the end of the international engagement with Afghanistan.

I don’t know how long it will take, it might take a few years, but you know, we have messed up big time in Afghanistan and for a very long time we didn’t provide sufficient resources to troops, we didn’t deal with corruption, we didn’t engage with the Taliban, we didn’t try and develop not only military strategy but also a strategy to help with economic and social development. Now some of those things have improved; the military strategy now seems much more of a coherent one but we still have a problem with the terrible corruption of the Kabul government.

So I think the main question now is, how can we make sure that no only military progress is made but crucially political progress is made, including engaging and negotiating and doing deals with the sort of non-hardcore Taliban? And I think all that will unfold over the next few months.”

Moving onto the economy, the Tories believe that the FSA should be scrapped and that the power should be returned to the Bank of England who should oversee the financial structures. Where do the Liberal Democrats stand on this issue?

The Conservative obsession with playing musical chairs with different regulators is completely besides the point.

It’s some kind of displacement activity, where somehow by shifting a few bureaucrats from the FSA to the Bank of England you’ve solved the largest financial crisis known to modern capitalism; it’s absurd. You’ve got to do something much more radical than that.

Our view is that we should return to the spirit of the American Glass-Steagall legislation and split banks, so that you never again have this confusion between low-risk, high street retail and high-risk, over-leverage investment banking.

You’ve got to separate those two; that is of course what Paul Volcker and President Obama have started to advocate in the United States and that is what we have advocated all along.

In putting the 10% levy on banks, you will destabilise their safety; surely that doesn’t help banks pay the debts to clean up their system, which should be the highest priority? How are you therefore going to increase capital flows to revive the real economy?

I’ll tell you immediately what I think should be the priority for banks; lending money for viable businesses to keep them going to allow them to employ people. Instead, what they are doing is hoarding money in order to return to private ownership as quickly as possible. And I think that shouldn’t be the priority when the economy is still as weak as it is.

We should be saying to the banks, ‘look, stop holding onto your capital to retain your balance sheets, instead lend on reasonable terms – particularly to small and medium sized companies, here in Cambridge and elsewhere – because that is what the economy needs.’

And at the same time, I think it is reasonable for us to say given that we have provided them being the tax payer with a massive multi-billion pound bailout, that as long as we basically own them – because we bailed them out – that they will return on the generosity that we have provided them.

What about the private enterprises then?

Well private enterprises are only going to survive in this country, if they get banks’ lending money to them, and that’s not happening. You see, it’s all the wrong way round. You’ve got the Conservative Party wittering on about what you do with the FSA, which is irrelevant to the day-to-day survival of companies. It is the banks hoarding money, because they have been told by the government to repair their balance sheets to pay off their debts, and the one thing they are not doing is lending money to the companies. That is the lifeblood; the economy doesn’t work unless it has cash. The blood is not circulating in the economy because a lot of the banks aren’t lending and that will be our number one priority if we were in government.

What was your political stance when you were a student here in Cambridge?

I actually wasn’t that political, I was probably a lot more left-wing – I mean I very much consider myself a progressive politician – but I think I was then, and certainly after I went to Cambridge and studied at other places, I was probably more left-wing then when I started than I am now. But I wasn’t attracted to party politics like lots of the other undergraduates. I didn’t have any answers; I still kept finding my way round.

So you didn’t consider opting for positions like the President of the Cambridge Union, for example?

No. Put it this way; I was always quite bewildered and impressed by young people who were filled with raging certainties about things when I was still asking questions.

Mari Shibata

Interview first published March 2010