Why Nick was right to speak out

by Stephen Tall on February 18, 2009

Nick Clegg’s article in yesterday’s Times – in which he looked at the impact of the recession, and predicted it would lead to a reinvention of traditional parenting roles – has provoked an entirely predictable knee-jerk from the right-wing media:

The Sun – LIB Dem boss Nick Clegg yesterday HAILED the slump as a chance for sacked workers to make a fresh start. In an astonishing gaffe, he said mass redundancies would have a “liberating effect”, allowing men to “reinvent” themselves as stay-home dads.

The Telegraph – The father-to-be has gone so far as to declare that redundancy could give men a welcome opportunity to “reinvent” themselves as stay-at-home dads. That’s going to go down like a lead balloon with the sacked staff at Mini. And Woolworths. And Leeds council. And JCB. And, and, and … These gaffes are becoming a bit of a habit.

Daily Mail – Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was accused of another gaffe last night after suggesting the recession offered a chance for men to ‘reinvent’ themselves as stay-at-home fathers.

It’s one of the ironies/hypocrisies of life that these are just the kind of newspapers which will despair of politicians who all ‘sound the same’, and which will praise politicians prepared to speak their minds … so long as they’re anti-EU, anti-PC and anti-immigrant.

Read Nick’s article, and it’s clear that this was not – by any stretch of the imagination – a “gaffe”. It was a considered response setting out the ways in which families are affected by, and respond to, economic storms. Nick emphasised the ‘unsettling and deeply disruptive’ effect of the main breadwinner – usually a man – losing his job, and that there needs to be much greater flexibility, both among those seeking work, and by society in terms of how we all view men undertaking non-traditional jobs.

I’m not sure Nick’s use of the term ‘reinventing ourselves’, or his suggestion that ‘many men will be forced to let go of their earlier identities and try something new’, were the best way of putting forward his case – it strikes a slightly airy-fairy, new-age rhetorical note at odds with his practical proposals for ways in which British family life might be improved.

But I don’t think that matters for three reasons:

First, the right-wing press are never going to be won over to the Lib Dem cause. They adore Vince not least because he gives them extra cover to go on the offensive against Nick and the party more widely, while maintaining a pretence of impartiality.

Secondly, Nick is clearly passionate about the issue of work/family balance. And it’s entirely right that he should champion causes about which he cares so strongly.

Thirdly, Nick needs to get noticed, and sometimes to say things which get him criticised. For every right-wing macho hack who labels his comments a gaffe there will be another person open to reason, and grateful that a politician is addressing issues in grown-up way.