Nick Clegg’s speech: my first impressions

by Stephen Tall on September 18, 2013

This was Nick’s sixth speech to a Lib Dem autumn conference, and was his most relaxed and assured performance to date. As with the best of his Letters from the Leader, it worked because he took us behind the scenes of government – such as “shell-shocked civil servant promising me we’d get on with things shortly – but first he had to get us some desks”.

The list of achievements in government was despatched pretty quickly: tax-cuts for the low-paid, the Pupil Premium, new apprenticeships social care reforms, railway investment, same-sex marriage, and so on. Past speeches have sometimes included a paragraph on each, seemingly attempting to beat activists into submission through lists. Not this time.

There was also an implicit acceptance that Nick would no longer accuse the party of “hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition”, as he did in the summer. After all, our surveys of members consistently show three-quarters (75%) want the party to be an active player in government after the next general election.

I have talked to you before about our journey from the comforts of opposition to the realities of Government – but not anymore. Liberal Democrats – we are a party of Government now.

Central to Nick’s message in this speech was that the Lib Dems are now a party of government, and a party committed to making Coalition Government work. There was a rather neat imagining of the next still-to-be-confirmed televised leaders’ debate, which earned warm applause:

Imagine the next round of leaders’ debates everyone watching to see who agrees with whom this time. David Cameron will say to Ed Miliband: you’re irresponsible, you are going to drive the economy to ruin. Ed Miliband will say to David Cameron: you can’t be trusted to help everyone, your party only cares about the rich. For once, I will agree with them both. Because they’re both right: left to their own devices, they’ll both get it wrong.

This was an explicit appeal to those moderate voters who trust neither Labour nor the Conservatives to govern alone. However, Nick’s acutely aware that many activists, even if they accept the electoral reality of the party’s position, are deeply wary that this centrism may end up becoming a split-the-difference mushiness. He sought to reassure them that the Lib Dems will fight in 2015 proudly as an independent party:

The Liberal Democrats are not just some subset of the Labour or Tory parties – we’re no one’s little brother. We have our own values, our own liberal beliefs.

Another criticism he faced head-on was the accusation from those who reckon his privileged upbringing (something he shares in common with David Cameron and Ed Miliband), together with his lack of involvement in student politics, means his liberalism is flimsy, insubstantial. A key passage was Nick’s explanation of what motivated him to get stuck in – no surprises that it was his internationalism, his belief Britain has to be a global player:

The Liberal Democrats seemed so outward looking and forward looking, compared to the tired, old, introverted politics of Labour and the Conservatives. For me, that was it. That’s how I found our party.

Small wonder, then, that he urged Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom:

I unambiguously, unequivocally want Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom. The nationalists don’t have a monopoly on passion in this debate. I love the way the UK is made up of different peoples, different traditions, different histories.

Nick knows that these kinds of statements are bound to go down well with Lib Dem activists. But he didn’t shy away from two issues where he’s gotten grief in the past year: the draft Communications Data Bill, which he opposed following a vigorous internal revolt, and Syria, where he argued for liberal interventionism though the mood of the party is largely against a military strike. In neither passage did he have to pause for applause, however; and his support for secret courts, quietly overturned at conference this week, wasn’t mentioned.

Perhaps the passage that delighted Lib Dem members most was when he contrasted Lib Dem actions in government with a counter-factual: “What do you think Britain would look like today if the Tories had been alone in Whitehall for the last three years? What would have happened without Liberal Democrats in this Government?” On 12 separate issues, he told Lib Dem members, he had said No to the Conservatives:

Inheritance tax cuts for millionaires – no. Bringing back O’ levels and a two-tier education system – no. Profit-making in schools – no. New childcare ratios – no. Firing workers at will, without any reasons given – no, absolutely not. Regional pay penalising public sector workers in the north – no. Scrapping housing benefit for young people – no. No to ditching the Human Rights Act. No to weakening the protections in the Equalities Act. No to closing down the debate on Trident. Had they asked us, no to those ‘go home’ poster vans. No to the boundary changes if you cannot deliver your side of the bargain on House of Lords reform. And if there’s one area where we’ve had to put our foot down more than any other, have a guess. Yep, the environment. … No, no and no – the Liberal Democrats will keep this Government green.

That last line had shades of Margaret Thatcher – who earned an unscripted mention:

Labour were attacked, too – “I could give you a hypothetical list of bad ideas the Liberal Democrats would have to stop – but that would involve Labour producing some actual policies” – but he mostly steered well clear of the invective, recalling his embarrassment when Wimbledon winner Andy Murray put he, Cameron and Miliband on the spot at a reception by asking: ‘you all seem to get along now, why can’t you always be like this?’

He was right, it’s true: we can get on. We’re never going to be mates, but I’ve got nothing against them personally – politically, yes, personally, no. That’s why the constant, breathless speculation about how different party leaders get on kind of misses the point. I’m endlessly asked who I feel more ‘comfortable’ with – David Cameron or Ed Miliband? Wouldn’t our party be more comfortable with Labour? Aren’t we more comfortable with our present coalition partners? But I don’t look at Ed Miliband and David Cameron and ask myself who I’d be most comfortable with, as if I was buying a new sofa. … Whether or not we have another coalition is determined by the British people – not me, not you, the people. And if that happens, only their votes can tell us what combination of parties carries the greatest legitimacy.

Quite. He was not asking people to vote for a hypothetical coalition – simply pointing that if that if the electorate’s votes produce another deadlock, the Lib Dems will be willing to work with the party with the most seats and votes to break it.

There were just two notes in the speech which didn’t quite work (I don’t think). He tickled our tummies a couple of times by pointing out, not wrongly, that the Lib Dems are an anti-establishment party. For instance, he recalled how he and Alistair Carmichael were invited to an impromptu wedding ceremony by same-sex marriage campaigners: “at that moment we were exactly where we belonged: on the outside, welcoming in reform.” Which was a bit hard to square with us being a natural party of government, and with the fact that it was Lynne Featherstone and he (and many others) working on the inside that delivered this reform.

It was also odd for Nick to preach the virtue of parties working together – “pluralism works” – while later adding a clap-line: “In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to work with either of them because I’d be Prime Minister on my own thank you very much.”

But I’m nit-picking. This was a good speech, seemingly well-received, and with a clear message that has been broadcast throughout this conference: Lib Dems are dead-set on staying in government. The lines which drew the loudest cheers in the hall were these:

We’re not trying to get back into Government to fold into one of the other parties – we want to be there to anchor them to the liberal centre ground, right in the centre, bang in the middle. We’re not here to prop up the two party system: we’re here to bring it down.

That’s right: no more two-party politics. Its two-party government we’re signed-up for now.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.