Nick’s triple whammy: a fairer society, a greener economy, a politics of trust

by Stephen Tall on December 15, 2008

Nick Clegg delivered a heavily trailed major speech to the think-tank Demos today on the subject ‘Why I Am A Liberal’ – you can read it in full on the party website here.

The part that’s making the headlines is Nick’s warning to his fellow politicians not to impose panic measures in the wake of high-profile cases, such as the kidnap of Shannon Mathews or the killing of Baby P.

We know that it was the disaster politics response to the killing of Jamie Bulger that led to a massive upswing in the number of children in prison or prison-like secure accommodation. And we know it isn’t doing any good, it isn’t cutting crime, it’s just turning fragile children into damaged adults. Turning out a generation of career criminals. We need to protect against the worst, but we should not assume it. Crime must not end hope.”

However, the whole speech is worth reading – in particular, for Nick’s distillation of the contrasts between liberal and socialist concepts of progressive politics:

… a difference which has endured for the best part of a century and lives on in the modern Liberal Democrat and Labour parties.

Liberalism believes fairness, fulfilment and freedom can be best secured by giving real power directly to millions of citizens. Socialism believes that society can only be improved through relentless state activism, a belief driven by far greater pessimism about the ability of people to improve their own lives.

A liberal believes in the raucous, unpredictable capacity of people to take decisions about their own lives. A Socialist believes in the ordered, controlled capacity of the state to take the right decisions about other peoples’ lives.

A liberal believes a progressive society is distinguished by aspiration, creativity and non conformity. A Socialist believes a progressive society is characterised by enlightened top-down Government. …

Optimism in people. Dispersing power. These then are the key instincts of liberals.

He’s also clear-sighted, and objectively partisan, in his view of the Conservative party:

the Conservative tradition in British politics has oscillated wildly between a paternalistic view of the state – as sceptical as the Left of the capacity of people to take charge of their own lives – to an aggressive consumerism wedded to an unreformed model of politics at home and a brittle, slightly neurotic, nationalism abroad.

The modern Conservative Party seems to me to be beached between these two traditions – keen to take a softer, paternalistic attitude towards social issues whilst taking an increasingly sink-or-swim attitude towards those hit by the economic downturn and a doctrinaire hatred of the EU.

The great strength of British Conservativism has been its aversion to excessive theorising, and respect for simple pragmatism. But I’m not sure how even the most ingenious pragmatist will make sense of these new contradictions.

In the second half of the speech, Nick sets out his – and the Lib Dems’ – liberal response to the current political climate:

… what we also need to understand is this: the economic crisis rightly dominates the political debate today, but it also obscures deeper challenges which the country was already facing, and which are now further exacerbated by recession:

A social crisis. An ecological crisis. And a political crisis. …

The economic turmoil we face today is a direct consequence of a failure to adhere to simple liberal principles in the way we run our economy. And we continue to face the triple challenge of a society which is unfair, ecologically unsustainable and disfigured by distrust in politics.

These problems all stem from power being in the wrong hands, or in too few hands.
That’s what keeps people poor, it’s what prevents us from protecting the planet, and it’s what feeds the growing disillusionment towards politics.

So the solution must be sharing power, rather than hoarding it. Giving people a say over their own lives. Trusting people to make the right judgements for themselves, their families and their communities.

Finally, Nick set out his election stall:

At the next General Election the Labour Government will no doubt say that they should be re-elected to get us out of this mess even though they’re heavily responsible for it in the first place. The Conservatives will no doubt say it’s time for a change even though they have no intention of delivering real, lasting change.

I believe it will be the opportunity for Britain to do things differently. To create a fairer society. A greener economy. A politics of trust. Because at a time of fear, I believe people want hope.

There are many interesting messages here; I’ll pick out only two.

First, that Nick is very clearly, and quite deliberately, stressing the essential optimism of liberalism, and the policies of the Lib Dems. This is territory that David Cameron attempted to stake out as his own when he was first elected Tory leader, and piloting his ‘brand decontamination’ PR exercise. He’s largely dropped the pose since (think of the Tory emphasis on our ‘broken society’), and Nick surely senses the opportunity.

Yet optimism is a difficult brand to master, especially as the leader of the third party, in which role he’s often desperate for media attention – the media will normally want Nick to criticise Labour when interviewed, while his positive sound-bites will lie unused on the cutting-room floor.

And, secondly, that Nick senses the environment really does have the potential to re-establish itself as the party’s defining campaigning success, as hinted at in today’s well-placed story in The Independent, Clegg fights to claim limelight with environmental revolution.

As LDV has covered before, there is growing recognition that neither Labour nor the Tories will have the courage to push for effective green policies at the next election, leaving it to the Lib Dems to do so. As the environment is an arena in which the party already has an established brand, it will be much easier to push the message that anyone who actually wants to vote for a party that cares about the planet will have only one real choice at the next general election.