Nick Clegg: on ideals colliding with reality

Jack Whitehead 8 May 2016

Clearly, the students of Cambridge do not blame Nick Clegg for raising tuition fees in 2012: his reception at the Union on Wednesday was rapturous, and jokes about it minimal. Although his speech to the chamber was entirely focused on the EU (an impassioned and forceful advocacy of the Remain campaign), our conversation beforehand centred on the Liberal Democrats’ failures at the last election, and plans for the future.

Describing the current political landscape as "more fractured than it ever has been in my lifetime", Clegg criticised the current Government as "curiously unrepresentative". A Tory majority with only 24% of the vote and Scotland ‘pretty much turned into a one-party state’, the ‘conventional outcome’ of the last election ‘disguised a very unconventional political landscape’. But is there room on this landscape for centre ground, considering the obliteration of the Lib Dems at the last election? A return will be "quicker than people think", Clegg argues. "I can’t predict how, or give you a date in the diary, but I’m pretty confident that the present state of affairs is an artificial one, and almost accidental."

As well as a vacation of the centre-ground, the last election saw increased polarisation of left and right, and the emergence of support for smaller parties. I ask Clegg about this, and the impact he thinks it’s having on British politics. 

"The reason I’m a Liberal Democrat is that I can’t bear the two-party ‘blue-team, red-team’ tag-race I grew up with in politics. I think more diversity’s good: I don’t like big monopolies of powerful vested interest, hoarding everything for themselves. I think [polarisation] is a very bad thing, not only because I’m a centre-ground politician, but because I think it’s been accompanied by a very angry, unreasoned turn in politics whereby who shouts the loudest is becoming increasingly the test as to whether someone is successful.

"Politics is a messy business – your ideals collide with reality – but a lot of people on the left and right have developed such a purist attitude towards it that any compromise of reality is regarded as a betrayal: and that will just lead to gridlock if no-one is prepared to get their hands dirty. Some people want to camp on either extreme and just talk about stuff: someone has to step up to the plate and do things."

So what does Nick Clegg do, now he’s no longer deputy Prime Minister? For one thing, he recently launched the Commission on Inequality in Education, but when asked about the role of private schools, his usual confident and open style wavered a little. Calling them "an expression of a segregated society, rather than the genesis of it", he refuses to condone or condemn them, instead comparing them to the monarchy. "Would you start where we are now? Probably not. But for me, it’s not the priority."

He is similarly sketchy on Boris Johnson’s recent comments about Obama, replacing the word "racist" with "crass, stupid, offensive" before interpreting the question as a further opportunity to advocate remaining in the EU. He opposes the "shouting match" that the EU debate has turned into, saying that Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are avoiding engaging in legitimate debate, instead relying on cheap insults, as in the case with Obama. He thinks similarly about the recent complaints of anti-Semitisim on the left, claiming they "stop legitimate criticism" of the Israeli government.

Clegg is far more comfortable when the conversation turns to the EU, describing himself as in "battle mode". He blasts the Leave campaign, warning that Putin will be "rubbing his hands together" at the thought of Europe unravelling, and pointing out that voting leave will be a boost for the nationalists. His ire is also turned against the "unelected, bloated chamber" that is the House of Lords on whom it is "ridiculous" to rely on as he discusses the failures and injustices of the Conservative Government, answering floor questions in the Chamber adeptly.

A powerful and persuasive speaker, Nick Clegg is also an incredibly friendly conversationalist. His point of view on the EU is interesting and his honesty refreshing, if not unwavering. I left our conversation impressed by his eloquence and feeling sorry that this man is no longer in government.