Nick Clegg is on the right side of history...mostly

The leader of the Liberal Democrats is taking a lot of stick. But he has truly put country before party and deserves more respect.

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Nick Clegg: Still the boy wonder
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Will James
On 18 April 2011 10:42

If a week is a long time in politics, then this last year must have been an eternity for Nick Clegg. Twelve months ago the country was gripped by ‘Clegg-mania’, following the UK’s first ever televised leader’s debate. In one hour Clegg had succeeded in stealing the limelight from Gordon Brown, hater of “bigoted” old grannies, and David Cameron, the heir presumptive of British politics. “I agree with Nick”, they chorused.

With the election resulting in a hung parliament, Clegg stood poised as kingmaker. For five days a nation waited with bated breath – or stifled yawns, take your pick – as negotiators took part in the most exclusive game of political auctioneering the country had seen since Stanley Baldwin and Ramsey MacDonald were household names.

A year on, however, after Clegg took his party into coalition with the Conservatives, the Deputy Prime Minister has gone from hero-to-zero in the eyes of many. Cuts. Tuition fees. Riots. Closing libraries. Snatched milk. Wailing and gnashing of teeth. Nick Clegg has become the face of all that is loathed and despised about the Coalition. “Tory scum” cutting vital services? That’s to be expected. But the cute and cuddly Lib Dems? Quislings!

As we approach Easter, atheist Clegg might be forgiven for looking upon the example of a popular leader – feted by the adoration of vast crowds one minute only to be crucified swiftly the next – with a deeper sense of understanding. But while cynics might shrug and say “that’s politics”, shouldn’t we stop to appreciate the real risks Clegg has taken in the last year. Yes, he may be hypocritical. Yes, he may be an opportunistic, promise-breaking toady. Yes, his speaking style may be so sanctimonious it physically hurts to listen. But on the big issues of the day, hasn’t Nick Clegg demonstrated that he is capable of making the right decisions – even when he knows it will hurt his intermediate political ambitions?

When given the choice between supporting the Conservatives or Labour – who had so obviously lost the authority to govern after thirteen wasted years of boom-n’-bust and spin – Clegg took his party into coalition with David Cameron. No easy feat for the leader of a political movement half-born from the 1980s divisions in the Labour Party, and which had been that party’s left-wing soul-mate all the way back to Jo Grimond.

When forced to reckon with the prospect of a Labour-led government, which the international markets feared would engender a Greek-style debt crisis, Clegg opted to support a credible and serious plan to tackle Britain’s crippling economic deficit.

While attacks from the left are to be expected, the Deputy Prime Minister has also faced criticism from the right. On almost every issue from Europe to nuclear power to banking sector reforms and much else besides, Clegg is accused of slowing, diluting or blocking Conservative policies to appease centre-left voters deserting his party.

But on many of the defining issues this government will be remembered for – education and welfare reform, economic recovery, taking the poorest in our society out of taxation – Nick Clegg is on the right side of history. Indeed, it was Clegg who defended Iain Duncan Smith’s bold welfare proposals during his battle with the Treasury last year. Even on foreign policy – while not suggesting that Clegg has undergone a Damascene conversion and turned into Ronald Reagan overnight – during the biggest international test thus far, Libya, the Deputy PM has supported the military intervention with a maturity which is a world away from Charles Kennedy’s self-serving pandering to the anti-war movement in 2003-2005.

This isn’t to suggest that Nick Clegg is right about everything. He isn’t by a long chalk.

The current Coalition muddle over the NHS is in large part due to Clegg’s desire to placate the weirdy-beardy brigade in his own party. When it comes to tackling radical extremism by adopting Cameron’s ‘muscular liberalism’ approach, Clegg has instead been content to stick to the miserable status quo that denies the link between non-violent and violent extremism, and which forces ethnic and religious communities to exist in not-so-splendid multicultural isolation from each other.

Along with Ken Clarke, Clegg is the largest obstacle to sorting out the European Court of Human Rights. And, thanks to Nick, we’re now in the final stages of a referendum campaign that nobody wanted and which if passed would see us scrap the ‘one person, one vote’ principle that has underpinned British democracy for generations.

Nevertheless, in spite of these drawbacks Nick Clegg has shown an enormous degree of political leadership, and a recognition of the urgent necessity of tackling Labour’s legacy of debt, educational delinquency and welfare dependency (recognition of which Ed Miliband has so far studiously avoided).

With the build-up to the May council and AV votes leading to increasingly dire predictions about the health of the Coalition, we shouldn’t forget that when it comes to the centre-left of British politics, it is the intellectual ground occupied by Clegg that is in the national interest – and not the duplicitous and unapologetic space occupied by Messrs Miliband and Balls. There’s no telling where the Lib Dem rollercoaster will go next, but one thing is certain: dumping Nick Clegg onto the tracks won’t guarantee them any less of a bumpy ride.

Will James is a freelance writer and political analyst

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